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638: How to Build Unhackable Focus with Kary Oberbrunner

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Kary Oberbrunner says: "The victor, the one that is unhackable, says, 'I happen to the world.'"

Kary Oberbrunner shares expert strategies for bringing your attention back to what matters most.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The wrong and right ways of dealing with task overload 
  2. The three components of deliberate magnetic focus 
  3. The two triggers of flow state

About Kary

Kary Oberbrunner is CEO of Igniting Souls. Through his writing, speaking, and coaching, he helps individuals and organizations clarify who they are, why they’re here, and where they should invest their time and energy.  

Kary struggled to find his own distinct voice and passion. As a young man, he suffered from severe stuttering, depression, and self-injury. Today a transformed man, Kary equips people to experience Unhackability in work and life and share their message with the world. He believes the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire. His vision is to ignite 100 million souls by 2030. 

Kary lives in Ohio with his wife, Kelly, and three children: Keegan, Isabel, and Addison. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Kary Oberbrunner Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Kary, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Kary Oberbrunner
It’s great to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I‘m excited to dig into so much of what you’ve got to say. First of all, though, I want to hear about your connection to the Shawshank Redemption movie.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yes, that is a fun tip. So, I was in a day job for a long time and it felt like a prison, and I remember watching Shawshank one evening, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I relate to that.” So, quick story, basically, I was writing on the side and I finally did get out of that day job, and I said, “You know what, lots of people are asking me, “How?” so I’m going to write a book called Day Job to Dream Job. And the Shawshank prison is the day job. Zihuatanejo, where eventually, Andy goes at the end of the movie is the dream job, and I’m going to write the book.

And so, I started Googling where the heck was Shawshank prison. And I’m not from Ohio originally but it was The Ohio State Reformatory, and I said, “Man, I’m driving 90 minutes up to nowhere.” I found it and, basically, told the workers what I was doing and that I wanted to write a book in Andy’s prison cell on Day Job to Dream Job, and they’re like, “Sweet! Here’s the wi-fi password.”

And so, I ended up writing a good amount of the book in Shawshank prison. And then, a year later when we launched it, they heard about the story, the celebrities came back, and, sure enough, the warden, Bob Gunton, we launched Day Job to Dream Job at Shawshank prison together.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s wild. Well, so…

Kary Oberbrunner
It’s pretty crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
“So, I want to work out of a prison cell,” and they’re like, “Yeah, you got it.” So, there’s no fees or protocols. It’s just like, “Yeah, sure thing,” but…

Kary Oberbrunner
Exactly. Well, it’s no longer like a functioning prison. It’s more of a museum now but, evidently, they trusted me. And now I actually train their board of directors once a year on leadership, so it’s a crazy full circle.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. Well, I’m excited to talk about one of your latest works, Unhackable. Great title. What would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made about us, humans, and how we pay attention these days when putting together the book?

Kary Oberbrunner
I’ll tell you what, I wrote a fiction book called the Elixir Project in 2016 about a future society where people’s brains get hacked, and that was my first stab at fiction. And when the book came out, people said, “Man, this is not just a fiction book. Like, this is happening.”

And so, they kind of said, “Turn this into a nonfiction book for people in the workforce, in business.” And so, basically, I did a ton of research and found out that a hack is basically when someone or something gains unauthorized access to a system or a computer. And think back to biology class, and sure enough, we were made up of pulmonary, circulatory, respiratory system so our bodies are like systems and our brains are like supercomputers. So, in a real way, humans are getting hacked anytime we get distracted from our ultimate destiny, our dream. And the distractions are crazy big these days, and I’m sure we’ll get into it. It’s a pretty fun topic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, unauthorized access, that’s sticking with me here.

Kary Oberbrunner
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that almost implies a hacker or a…Actually, I love the podcast the Darknet Diaries, it’s all about hackers.

Kary Oberbrunner
Sweet.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what do they call it, a threat actor, I think is the term they use a lot, whether that’s a nation or a company or an individual, kid in the basement. A threat actor is kind of getting unauthorized access into our heads, but sometimes it’s us.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, what’s a universe of threat actors that are kind of the big culprits of hacking our systems?

Kary Oberbrunner
It can be a lot of things. Unsexy hacks are just laziness or Netflix or these types of things, but, in a real way, the human species is now wired to crave distractions. We know from all the psychology that distractions produce a break from stress, and we know that smartphones create dopamine and addictions. So, I’m all for technology; I love technology.

However, human knowledge, once doubled every thousand years, so think about that. It took, essentially, from the years zero to 1500 to double human knowledge. And then the next time was 250 years, and it kept going and going. And, now, we live in a world today where every 12 hours human knowledge is doubling, and so we can no longer keep up.

Our ancestors made a handful of decisions a day back not too long ago. Today, we make 35,000 decisions. And so, we literally wake up with this limited attention, and throughout the day we dip into that and we create what’s called decision fatigue so that, at the end of the day, we’re saying things like, “I’m burnt out. I’m running on fumes. I’m on empty.” And, in a real way, we can no longer keep up with the amount of stress and distractions that are in front of us today.

Pete Mockaitis
When we talk about human knowledge doubling, is that kind of like the printing press or like unique content published? Is that what you mean by knowledge?

Kary Oberbrunner
Everyone has become a publisher. Everyone has become a content creator. We used to have gatekeepers where you would try to get a record out, you would try to get your thoughts out and be printed in the paper. We now have YouTube. We all are our own TV station, press release system, newspaper. We’re literally producing mountains and mountains of information not to mention computing, AI, I mean, you name it. It’s just an exponential curve.

And our brains haven’t upgraded. So, technology has upgraded but our brains have not. And not only that, Pete, but we now have new terms. Digiphrenia. So, schizophrenia was multiple personalities, this type of thing. Well, digiphrenia is a legit term that basically means that we exist in multiple places at once in the digital space.

So, most people have a Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, and so now, not only am I existing right now, Pete, but online I have a persona that’s existing that may be getting tweets and maybe getting comments. Not only that but you have the stress of trying to be consistent on all platforms at once. And so, there’s a tearing of the mind that happens. It’s literally a stress.

And not only that, the average person touch, clicks, taps, swipes their smartphone 2600 times a day according to dscout. We now have five hours a day but this is on screens, but it’s in 30-second bursts, so, not to mention COVID and kids now doing online school. Again, technology is not the enemy, but I’m saying technology used to be a tool that we used. Now, we’re the tool that technology is using.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s heavy stuff.

Kary Oberbrunner
It is heavy. It’s kind of like The Matrix, only real.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned psychological research. Could you share some striking stories or studies or evidence, bits, that kind of lay out – well, you dropped the numbers already, which is intriguing – in terms of like the state of play right now? And then what’s really possible if we take on some practices to become unhackable?

Kary Oberbrunner
Absolutely. So, right now, we have so many things going at us that a lot of us have adapted the lie of multitasking. And people get confused about multitasking, they say, “Surely, I can mow the lawn and listen to an audiobook. See, that’s multitasking.” Multitasking, we’re actually talking about doing two cognitive things at the same time. And so, therefore, it’d be like me trying to do a podcast with you right now and checking email and check my Instagram. When we do that, it’s not multitasking; it’s switch-tasking, our IQ drops 40 points, so it’s literally like being stoned.

And so, most of us, throughout the day, let’s be honest, we walk through the day stoned. And we do what’s called attention residue where part of my brain is still on the Instagram, part of my brain is on the email, part of my brain is with you. And not only is that productivity destruction but it’s relationship destruction. There’s a new term now called fobbing, not snobbing, where you’re trying to talk to me and I’m blowing you off or whatever, you’re blowing me off.

Now, when we’re talking with people, we’re looking at our smartphones. And this presence of relationship is now a thing of the past, and you can tell. I’ve got to do business on Zoom. You can tell when someone is watching or you can tell when someone is checking something else and something else, and it’s literally redefining the way we do relationships.

Kary Oberbrunner
But there is good news. There is good news.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us then, sort of, ultimately, how do we become unhackable?

Kary Oberbrunner
How do we become unhackable? I love it. So, here’s the thing, in the book, I break down unhackability into three things. I’ll give you the three easy-to-remember words and then we’ll bump it out a little bit. But it’s literally idea, focus, and flow. That’s what unhackability is: idea, focus, and flow. Notice it’s knowing, being, and doing.

So, to stress that a little bit more, it’s flawless idea anatomy, so we talk about, “How do you create flawless ideas?” and there’s four components. Then we go into deliberate magnetic focus, and there’s three focus filters. We’ll get into that. And then optimal human performance – flow. And so, certainly people will have read books or heard books on just flow, like Steven Kotler is kind of the grandfather of flow; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. There’s been books on flow, there’s been books on focus, and then there’s been books on ideas, but, truly, an unhackable person is one who leverages all three.

And I’ll tell you why this is so important, because, as kids, we grow up saying a weird word; we said, “Abracadabra” anytime we wanted something magical to happen. We didn’t know what the word meant but we said it. The word actually means “I create as I speak.” I create as I speak. People who have faith, very interesting, it even gets crazier. It’s made up of three Hebrew words. Abba, which is father, and so it’s Father-Son-Spirit, Abracadabra. Really crazy interesting stuff.

In the faith tradition, it says that “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In other words, Abracadabra. I believe that we’ve been created to dream and do, ideate and implement, and that is our divine destiny. And when we’re doing that, we’re actually living out our calling. But, unfortunately, most of us dream, then we get hacked. We ideate, and then we get hacked; we don’t implement.

So, to your point, let’s talk about focus filters. Yeah, focus filters is one component of how to become unhackable. I, basically, break down focus filters into three of them: urgency, agency, and energy. So, most people, your great listeners, they probably have a dream, they probably have a desire, but, unfortunately, we always get hacked until we apply those focus filters: urgency, agency, and energy.

So, just to give you an example, it’s a beach example. If I go out to the beach, I got a bald head, I can burn in about three hours, or I can burn in about three minutes. What’s the difference? A magnifying glass.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, sunscreen.

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah, that’s right. A magnifying glass. So, same sun, same skin, but a magnifying glass, or what I call a focus filter, it amplifies the energy. So, it takes all that energy from the sun and puts it into a laser beam where you burn a whole into your skin. Or, in the metaphor we’re using, you burn a whole into your dream. You take that dream that you have where you keep getting hacked, and you, essentially, narrow your focus.
Urgency is that focus filter. So, what I mean by that is we need a deadline. Every dream needs a deadline. And think back to school days, Pete, remember when the professor assigned something on day one? When did most people actually do the assignment?

Pete Mockaitis
The night before.

Kary Oberbrunner
The night, Pete, you nailed it. A deadline amplified the energy. In other words, it said, “We’re going to get so focused. We’re going to get laser-focused.” Why? Because there’s a cost. If you don’t complete the assignment you get a bad grade. Well, what I’ve realized is that urgency is one of these amazing things, just like physical healthcare, what makes it super important? You put the word urgent in front of it. Urgent care. Now, all of a sudden, you get rushed, you get seen fast. Why? Because there’s a cost. Most of us do not have a cost attached to our dream, or a deadline. Those two components – deadlines and costs – make urgency work for us and become unhackable.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then, I think of deadlines, they are often associated with other people in terms of it’s like closing a house or whatever. It’s sort of like the lawyers, the realtor, the somebody said, “This is when this has to be in.” And so, when you think about our own dreams, how do we effectively harness a deadline so that there does seem like there’s a real cost? Like, if I do some work on a project tomorrow, I could do it the next day or the day after. How do I get urgency to be real and the cost to be real?

Kary Oberbrunner
Just to give you some client examples, I had one client who kept blowing off his weight dream, like, “I want to get down to a certain weight. I want to get down to a certain weight,” and he just struggled and struggled and struggled. Finally, he said, “Okay, I’m going to put a real cost behind this.” And I won’t tell you which political party he hates but he hates a certain political party so much that he said, “I will write out a check right now for $1,000 to the political party that I hate. I will put it in an envelope, I will put a stamp on it, and it will sit on my desk, and if I do not lose…” and this guy was a pretty big dude, “…if I did not lose 50 pounds by this day, that check is in the mail.”

I’ll tell you what, first time in his life he ever did it. He lost the weight because it, suddenly, was a real cost, which not just was a $1,000 but a “$1,000 to a political system that I do not like,” it was big enough. And I don’t know what people’s cost is but it needs to hurt. In other words, Pete, it needs to hurt so much that doing the dream is easier than paying the cost.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. There’s an episode of Nathan For You, it’s a comedy show, it’s kind of ridiculous that kind of explored this concept. You might enjoy that episode if you haven’t seen it.

Kary Oberbrunner
I might. I might, after you quote that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s intriguing. And I wonder if people are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t trust myself to actually do it.” I mean, you could sort of entrust that with a friend who happens to have the opposite political party affiliation.

Kary Oberbrunner
He did. He did. He told me.

Pete Mockaitis
And they’ll be eager to give it to that side. But then, also, they’re your friend so they’re not going to just sort of make a $1,000 of yours disappear without your consent.

Kary Oberbrunner
Exactly. Exactly. But that’s one example. But here’s another thing, Pete, it really becomes a mindset change. Unhackable people are victors, and hacked people are victims. And this is not my own but I love it, it’s a great illustration. Victims say, “The world happens to me.” Now, I’m not talking about victims of trauma or this type of thing, but I’m saying a victim mindset. So, a victim says, “The world happens to me.” And what happens is they often lie in bed – blame, excuses, and denial.

The victor, the one who’s unhackable, says, “I happen to the world.” These are people that put their quote “Oar in the water,” O-A-R, ownership, accountability, and responsibility. So, they literally take accountability for their lives. They literally are responsible. They take ownership. It’s not just a nice acronym. This is the difference between Capt. Sully on the flight. He didn’t ask the Canada geese to hit the propeller, but when Jeff, his copilot, was flying the plane, Sully said the magic words, “My plane.” And Jeff said, “Your plane.”

In other words, he took ownership, accountability, and responsibility. He took over that bird strike because he was unhackable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that’s one way to make a deadline real. Let’s hit the agency and the energy. How do we crank that up?

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah. Agency, I’ll give you an example. When I get my oil changed at the dealer, I suddenly walk into their agency. Let me explain.

Chairs, magazines, Donahue is on the TV, or something crazy. In other words, I walk into their space and it’s their agency. Many people have that reality. In other words, no judgment, but when I fly on an airplane and look to the person next to me, they’re bored as heck, they’re flipping through the magazine, they’re busting out their phone.

Listen, if you got a dream, you’re not chilling like that. And I’m not saying you always got to be working, but I’m saying that, in the book we talk about what’s called your boon. Your boon is your deepest desire, your greatest ache, your truest longing. It comes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Luke Skywalker, Neo, Katniss Everdeen, Hunger Games, Star Wars, you name it, Matrix. The hero’s journey is all about leaving the ordinary world, meeting a mentor, refusing the call, going into this special world, facing the giant, we think it’s external, it’s really ourselves or the ones who hack ourselves most of the time. But then, after we defeat the giant, we essentially get the boon. The boon is the holy grail. The boon is the elixir.

Let me say this, Pete. We don’t care if we get hacked until we know our boon. So, in other words, when I don’t know my boon, I’m like, “Hey, come on, Netflix, come on, XBOX, come on, all distractions in the world. What’s going on, on TV?” In other words, I actually purposely try to distract myself because it gives me this pseudo-purpose. But a someone who knows their boon, man, they are fighting for that. And that’s what really kicks us into unhackability, is knowing our boon.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so how do you recommend we get some clarity and specificity on our boon, our deepest desire and calling and such?

Kary Oberbrunner
Well, I do have a free download, no email opt-in required. It’s at UnhackableBook.com, and if they click Resources, there’s 83 questions that gets you started, and these questions are fun. One question is, “What’s one thing you would regret not doing before you die?” It’s deep questions. It’s questions that you don’t just address every single day, but these are deep questions.

And what we begin to see is this melody line. It often doesn’t come just in one lightning bolt. It often comes with, I say, dream recovery, not dream discovery. In other words, your show is great and it probably talks about how we need to recover our dream. In other words, if you ask most kids, I’ve never met a young kid who said, when you ask them, “What do you want to be when you get older?” “Oh, I don’t know. I have no clue.”

I think we are born with this innate sense, maybe not exactly, but in the ballpark. Like, some people just say, “I know I was born to be on the stage.” Now, they might’ve thought the stage was one thing. Or, “I was born to always care for animals.” We lose sight of who we are along the way because we start listening to the voices of others. In other words, other people’s advice hacks us, “Pete, you won’t make money out of that,” or, “That’s not a well-paying job,” or, “That’s not a respectable job.” And, suddenly, we start listening, and that’s another way that we allow other people to gain unauthorized access to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, 83 questions, we can do some exploration, reflection, rediscovery there. And then how about energy?

Kary Oberbrunner
I think clarity…

Pete Mockaitis
What was that?

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yeah, yeah. I was just going to say clarity comes with action. I think that we don’t just sit in a room and wait for the clarity to come. A lot of times we have to work it out, we have to try, we have to experiment. But back to your phrase about energy. Energy is that last focus filter. And energy is super cool, super exciting.

Are you familiar with Twenty One Pilots? Have you ever heard of them? A band?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know.

Kary Oberbrunner
Okay. So, it’s a band, and there’s tons of bands out there so I don’t expect you to know, but the Twenty One Pilots are a band, and I’m just going to use…I like to tell stories to make a point. They come from my hometown Columbus, and they won a Grammy. But, well before they won a Grammy, nobody knew about them. And what’s interesting is you can actually go on YouTube and you can find one of their very first concerts, and it’s pitiful. There’s 12 people and it’s in a basement.

And the craziest thing in the world is that the lead singer is so enthusiastic. Oh, my gosh, like the guy is on fire, and you’re kind of like, “What the heck, man? There’s 12 people in the basement.” He had what’s called an enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the word entheos, God within. This is part of becoming unhackable.

What gets you on a bigger stage is enthusiasm. Most people say to the universe, they say, “Once I’m on a bigger stage…” “Once I have a big platform…” “Once I have a big show…” “Once I have a big business, then I’ll be enthusiastic.” No, no, no, you have enthusiasm, and that’s what gets you on the bigger stage. So, just like you, Pete, just like me, I mean, you’re successful, I’m successful. Why? Because we treated those first five listeners like rock stars. We didn’t say, “Hey, I’m going to overlook those first five listeners. And, some day, when I have a big tribe, a big showing…” No, no, no, this is what unhackable takes. It takes that energy where energy is E-motion. Energy in motion.

Like passion. I love the word passion. I’m into words. I’m a word nerd. But the word passion, very interesting. The ancients define passion not by how much love you had, but by how much you’re willing to suffer. So, that’s why I never understood, “Why was it called ‘The Passion of the Christ’? and there was talk about a cross? What the heck?” It’s because He was willing to suffer for it.

And so, I just want to challenge your listeners. Your boon is something you’re willing to suffer for. I mean, you look at any great person, they had to suffer for their dream and it had a cost. And so, energy is that focus filter where that’s what really helps us become unhackable when we focus urgency, energy, and agency.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the energy is comparable to passion and the willingness to suffer? Is that the key there? And then, I suppose, we get that by successfully tapping into the boon.

Kary Oberbrunner
Absolutely. It comes with clarity. Like, Rosa Parks, she was unhackable, man. Like, you look at her, she says, “I’m not getting up off this seat. Like, I’m not going to,” and she suffered for it. There’s people all throughout history that suffered for their dream. And being unhackable, let’s face it, choosing not to binge on Netflix every day when it’s in front of you, that takes some suffering. Whatever your dream is, we can go through the list, but whether it’s physical, spiritual, mental, relational, this type of unhackability does require a suffering.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so in your book you talk about a 30-day elixir. And so, we’ve talked about a number of things that are important along the way. So, can you maybe share what are some particular real practices or interventions that help us get to, let’s say, the superhuman focus?

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah. So, here’s an example for Day 17. So, right now, there’s a lot of open loops inside your brain and mine. These could be open loops, like, right now, mine is, “Call the plumber because we got a leak upstairs.” It could be, “Mulch the yard.” It could be, “Mail the letter.” It could be, “Buy the birthday gift.” In other words, most of us have this subconscious program that’s running all the time in the background.

Now, we don’t think about it but just like your computer has multiple tabs on it, the more programs, the more browsers, the more tabs, the more time and energy sucked, the RAM goes down. Actually, the available RAM goes down because the RAM you’re using, it goes up. And what I’m saying is that any open loop, any indecision that you and I have, is grinding on our productivity.

So, one of the exercises I have people do, my clients, I say, “Grab a stack of Post-it notes and, literally, write down one per, one task, one open loop, per Post-it note.” And so, what people do is they begin to lay out all these Post-it notes on their desk everything that we just talked about, all the open loops, all the undecided things, because it’s literally leaking their lifeforce, it’s leaking their energy. They’re getting hacked by it.

These are the things we get up in the middle of the night and say, “Oh, my gosh, I forgot to get the dog immunized,” or whatever. Then what we do is we write on a piece of paper, “Do, delegate, and dump.” So, I encourage people to do this, like, literally in their house – do, delegate, and dump. You don’t put delay. Delay is what we always think about, “Ah, I’ll just delay it. I’ll just delay it.” Do means you’re going to do it, delegate means someone else is going to do it, and dump means no one is going to do it.

And what we do is we do this on purpose, this exercise, because what it does is it clears the mind. It literally frees up your RAM. In the book, we talk about the unhackable impact equation. And, sure enough, when you go through this exercise, you begin to free up your brain, and you allow it to have more usefulness for what you’re boon is rather than chewing up all these open loops. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it’s the act of categorizing these that unleashes it or do we actually have to get them all done?

Kary Oberbrunner
First of all, by seeing them written down automatically takes them from being internal to external. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I don’t even know why I feel overwhelmed. I’m just like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a lot to do.” And if you actually slow down and say, “Well, what are those things to do?” this is the exercise. We stop, we slow down, and we allow ourselves to unload this, first of all. It goes from internal to external. Now, I’m looking at it.

The moment something is external, now I can make a decision. The word decide is a Latin word caedere. It has the same suffix as suicide, pesticide, insecticide, genocide, homicide. Decide means to cut off and kill. And so, what does a gardener do to a tree that’s unhealthy with sap going into all of its branches? He cuts them off. He prunes them. In other words, that’s what we’re doing. We’re deciding that, “I’m going to do it.” Or, we’re deciding that someone else is going to do it, delegation. Or, we’re deciding that no one is going to do it, dumping. And you, literally, open up your subconscious mind to focus on your boon. It’s a very cleansing process.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is nice and I’ve done variants of it and it sure does feel great. Let’s hear a piece about flow.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
How do you recommend or what are the sort of your top perspectives on how to get more flow flowing?

Kary Oberbrunner
Flow is amazing. Flow is the optimal state of human performance. It’s the place we all must be in to win a gold medal, but not only that. For those of us who aren’t athletes, it’s where productivity skyrockets up to 500%. It’s where we begin to see pattern recognition. It’s called lateral thinking. So, how do we get into flow? There are flow triggers.

One of the flow triggers, believe it or not, is a deadline. Another flow trigger is novelty. Interesting, novelty. So, what that means is that when we are stuck in a rut, we go through the same route every single day, with the same menu, and the same restaurant, and we sit in the same table. What happens is we begin to go on autopilot. And when we’re on autopilot, the brain is an energy hog and it wants to essentially map out everything through our day so it can conserve energy.

When you are on autopilot, you don’t experience flow. So, how do you interrupt the autopilot? By novelty, by doing things, by going places, by having experiences that you’ve never had before, because the brain has to engage, because there’s an element of surprise, there’s an element of unpredictability. And so, many times people feel in flow when they go travel somewhere.

And so, Pete, to get really philosophical here, we’re in a pandemic. There’s a lot of people that haven’t been able to travel. They’re not experiencing novelty. What’s the result? They’re getting hacked. And then what else is happening? Not to be a downer, but mental health. And in Japan, a few months ago, more people died of suicide than all of COVID the whole year in one month. Why? Because all of this relates.

In other words, unhackable people are people who have flawless idea anatomy, deliberate magnetic focus, optimal human performance. And one of the byproducts is that we get neurochemicals. And so, the neurochemicals are endorphins and norepinephrine and anandamide. All these neurochemicals that are supposed to be happening in our brain don’t happen when we’re not in flow, and that’s why depression is on the rise.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, noted and, yet, there are some simple thing that we can do to fix that.

Kary Oberbrunner
Exercise, yeah, all kinds of good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, why don’t you give us the quick bulleted list here? Exercise. What else?

Kary Oberbrunner
So, exercise, sleep, okay? When we starve our brains of sleep, I mean, I get it, but we’re actually not allowing, just like back in the day, all day, I’m older than you, a long time ago, but defragging your computer. Literally, the brain repairs itself in sleep. Margin, where you’re not just blowing out your adrenal glands and cortisol. Eating the right way. Think about it. We call it carb crashes, sugar rushes, caffeine fixes. All of these are essentially altering the chemistry to create a certain type of feeling. Well, we can do that naturally. Community. Having good discussions where time seems to go by like that. Why? Because you’re in flow. And when you’re in flow, there is a time dilation that occurs where it either slows down or speeds up.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Kary Oberbrunner
I’ll tell you what, I mean, I think people’s eyes are open now. More and more my clients are saying, “Man, I got hacked last weekend.” And people who don’t know the vocab, they’re like, “What? What do you mean you got hacked?” They’re now aware of it. So, awareness is really the first step. Just, for all the listeners to realize, like, “When did you get hacked? When did you just blow through five hours and you don’t even remember what you did? But you scrolled, these types of things.” And we do have an unhackability assessment. Again, all my stuff to help is free in this area because I just have a passion. I believe that when we are living our calling, when we’re fully alive, that’s our greatest contribution.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Kary Oberbrunner
Carl Jung said, “What’s the most damaging thing in the life of a child? it’s the unlived life of the parent.” And that’s a negative, but I view that as a very inspirational quote because it makes me want to live the lived life not the unlived life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Kary Oberbrunner
The current one that I’m digging is, believe it or not, The Psychology of Money. I just finished that. I like it. It reframes the way we think of money.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Kary Oberbrunner
Audiobooks, man. I love them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Kary Oberbrunner
My Peloton.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate and folks quote back to you frequently?

Kary Oberbrunner
“Show up filled up.” It basically means that you are doing the work internally before you ever step foot into the world every single day, and you attract people, you get clients. Why? Because they’re like, “Something is different about this person.” You show up filled up.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Kary Oberbrunner
I would say go to UnhackableBook.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Kary Oberbrunner
I’d say, look, even if you’re not in the right job, your ultimate calling, don’t waste the time. Back to our original thing with Shawshank and Andy, that dude didn’t just sit in prison. He was very resourceful, digging a hole on the side of the prison. So, I just want to encourage people, like, whether you’re in the right job or the wrong job, be all there because it matters.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kary, thanks for sharing the good word. I wish you many, many fun unhackable adventures.

Kary Oberbrunner
Thanks for the amazing interview, Pete.

618: Finding Greater Clarity Amid Uncertainty with Jodi Hume

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Jodi Hume says: "Just be... stupidly curious."

Jodi Hume shares decision-making strategies for finding greater clarity whenever you’re stuck.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What to do when every decision seems overwhelming
  2. Two best practices for sorting through tough decisions
  3. Powerful questions to surface hidden roadblocks

 

About Jodi

After a 15-year career as COO of a growing architecture firm, Jodi Hume shifted gears and has made a name for herself over the last decade providing on-call decision support and facilitated leadership conversations for startup founders, corporations, entrepreneurs and executives. Each week, she also hosts So, Here’s My Story… a business podcast of real stories with poignant take-aways and plenty of humor. She’s the lead singer for The Wafflers – and if you ask nicely, she might tell you about the time she won 1st place in a Truck Pull.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Jodi Hume Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jodi, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jodi Hume
Great. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom about decision-making. But I think, first, we have to hear about your truck pull champion performance. What’s the story there?

Jodi Hume
You want to jump right into the truck pull?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Jodi Hume
Well, actually, that probably would be a great decision-making story because it involves a lot of not making decisions. It was just sort of one of those things where a thing happens, and then you do the next thing, and then you do the next thing, and then, all of a sudden, you’re doing a truck pull. But to make a very long story short, because I’m 47, I’ve never been an athlete, I was a theater kid, that was just not my thing in the world.

I was going to a gym where we were doing like deadlifts but we were using the dumb bells, and I was frustrated because I knew I could lift more than I was but my grip strength was not great. And the guy mentioned that if you took the actual barbell class, how to learn how to really do it properly, that you could use the Olympic barbell kind of thing, and then you could lift a lot more. And that led into, apparently, they ended that with this mock lift meet which I was, “I am not doing a mock weightlifting thing. That is not happening.” But I did it.

And from there, I got talked into doing this fundraiser Strong Woman competition which I don’t know if you are familiar with, like the Strongman/Strongwoman competitions, but they are a hoot because all of the things that you compete in are all so awkward, like none of the things are like the normal things. You’re like throwing a tire, or you’re doing these overhead presses with these circus dumbbells they call them, so you have to tilt your head really far to the right, and it’s all very awkward and weird. So, you really have to separate yourself from all concern about looking like an idiot and just do the thing.

And a couple of the things you really couldn’t even train for, like we didn’t have a truck we could practice pull. We did other things but there’s this whole training thing beforehand. And who knew it, but I somehow ended up winning first place in a truck pull, pulling a seven-ton bread truck.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! So, I don’t know why in my brain, when I read truck pull, I was thinking about a tractor pull.

Jodi Hume
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But this is actually very different. You are physically, with your own strength, pulling a truck.

Jodi Hume
Pulling a truck, yeah. So, I will tell you, interestingly, there were events that were way harder, because that’s one really just about getting it moving. There’s a fantastic business metaphor here, by the way, because it’s a seven-ton truck. And if it wasn’t on wheels, and you actually had to pull a seven-ton truck, that is not an event that I’ll be participating in. That doesn’t happen. The trick to the truck pull is simply to just get it rolling. once you overcome that very initial inertia, which was particularly tricky because it was on cobblestones in a part of Baltimore here where it is, then it’s just about keeping it going, and it becomes super, super, super fast.

So, the real backstory here is, the reason I won first place, part of the reason, is a lot of people just couldn’t get it moving. They just couldn’t. So, again, the number of people who actually got it moving, then it came down to how fast you did it, but it was just, “Could you get it going in the first place?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, is there a trick to that, or you just…?

Jodi Hume
Actually, the trick was the way you hold the rope because your grip strength, again, is a real limiter in a lot of things, and you were allowed to wrap it around your wrist so that you could really use your whole body, but, for some reason, people weren’t doing that but I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, good.

Jodi Hume
See, I grew up where manual labor was, quite often, a part of our childhood so I know how to push and pull big things, I guess.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy.

Jodi Hume
Not a thing on my resume but who knew.

Pete Mockaitis
Pushing/pulling big things. Well, hey, sometimes decisions really do feel like big things that need to be pushed or pulled because they’re stuck, and maybe stuck for a long, long time.

Jodi Hume
Especially, in 2020, man.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s what I find most intriguing in your bio. So, providing on-call decision support. That just sounds like a lot of fun.

Jodi Hume
Doesn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, what does that mean?

Jodi Hume
Well, that’s a great question because there’s no easy word for what I do. I have been a coach, I have been a consultant, I’m a facilitator, I have other business background experience and whatnot, but, really, what it is now is this on-call decision support. And just recently, and I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but some of my earliest memories were doing this for my mom. My mom was an entrepreneur, both her parents were entrepreneurs, they didn’t hide any of those things from us. And I think, looking back, I certainly didn’t have this realization at the time.

But while the obvious things that I learned from all these conversations were the pieces of wisdom, or knowledge, or whatever you’re learning about how businesses worked, what I really, really came away with is how uniquely lonely business owners and leaders and people trying to guide anything can feel because they don’t always have someone to talk to. And it’s not even, when I say that, I don’t always mean like a therapy conversation. Just even to mentally process it, to get other feedback, there’s such pressure to feel like you’re supposed to know everything already and have all the answers.

And so, I was just really aware of these questions that my mom would get all snarled up in. And, as she would talk, I would just be asking all these questions to kind of untangle and separate facts from fictions or fears. And I don’t know if that’s just my version of “I see dead people,” but it’s kind of triaging down to, “What’s the real issue here? And which things are like stories you’re making up that’s making it more complicated? Or are you actually trying to decide, like, eight steps down when it’s really like an issue here?”

And, over time, I realized that that was really at the core of what most people in business need, is not some big, heavy coaching arrangement, or even a therapist, or a consultant. Most of the time they just need somebody else to bounce a thing off of and ask them some really good questions, validate the parts that make sense, challenge the parts that maybe don’t or should be questioned, and sometimes telling them to go take a nap, which happens more than you might realize, especially this year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Jodi Hume
And it’s fun. It was the part I like the most.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s so much fascinating good stuff in there, and that really rings true in terms of that is often what’s needed, and, you’re right, it doesn’t quite fit tidily into a lot of sort of preexisting categories we have for support, coaching, consulting, therapy-ish.

Jodi Hume
Yeah, because all those things feel like a big deal, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Jodi Hume
Like, somebody talks about, “I’m going to hire a coach,” and it’s like, “I have to find the right one, and it’s going to be expensive. And if it’s not working, I have to break up with them or same with therapists and whatnot.” It’s got like all this heavy weight to it and I don’t think it needs to be that. Seth Godin has this fantastic quote that says, “If you have a problem you can’t talk about, now you have two problems.” So, I like to have people not have two problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, maybe could you give us a cool story to make this come to life, in terms of, you know we could keep the confidentiality going but…

Jodi Hume
Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Someone, they were stuck, and how they managed to get unstuck?

Jodi Hume
Yeah. I will make a comment about the nap thing first and then I’ll tell you an actual story. But a great portion of time, because I feel this one is really usable, like as a self-evaluation thing that won’t get too hung up, and, “Is that story like mine? Is that story not like mine?” There is a great number of times that when somebody calls me to run a thing by me, I can just immediately tell by the tone of their voice, the way like there’s a heaviness in both of the things that they imagine are their two choices, there’s just a lot of different clues about it because sometimes you can tell that they’re dragging their feet because, down deep, they know something is a really bad idea.

And sometimes they’re dragging their feet because, down deep, they know something is a really good idea but it’s just really scary. That sounds completely different than the other way does. There is a specific kind of where just everything sounds heavy and nothing feels good or light or exciting where I really do think that if I offer…they’re so exhausted, that if we were trying to decide between a hamburger or a cheeseburger, they wouldn’t be able to decide. And that is when I say, “You have to find some way, whether it’s a nap, or whether it’s taking a day off, or just take an evening off, or whatever it is, whatever sliver of renewal time you can find. There’s really no point in us talking about this until you get some rest.” And there’s all sorts of neuroscience behind this. This is not a luxury thing.

Your brain cannot, when it gets that depleted, it cannot even access that part of your brain that can get to the real nuanced important thinking part, and so you are kind of at half-mast. So, I always sort of say to people, if I have one piece of advice, like, “Check in if you need a nap, or if you need a break, if you need to go walk around the forest for a little bit, or something, and just see if that makes your problem easier because a lot of times just sort of magically there’s an easy decision on the other side.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful. And I think it’s interesting in that I think most of us are at some level of tired.

Jodi Hume
Oh, it’s chronic right now. There are so many, first of all, and I promise I will get back to my story. Never, at least in our history, I mean, certainly way, way, way back when, but in the time any of us have been alive, it doesn’t feel like every single decision is potentially a life-and-death decision. It’s a little bit less so now, but for months, going to the grocery store felt like this huge weighty thing, my kids saying, “Can I see a friend?” I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know. That’s a lot of so many things to consider.”

We’re not used to and we are not built for that level of constant threat of considering that many things where there’s so much uncertainty, so little guidance on what the right thing to do is, changing variables, not to mention the emotional weight of isolation and not getting to do the things that we look forward to. That’s a huge one. I don’t think anyone really understood the value and importance and nutrition we get out of having things to look forward to. There’s not a lot you can even bank on to look forward to right now because it might get cancelled. And so, there’s just all these things that we never really realized were important that fed us, and things that are more heavy, and so, yeah, exhaustion is a chronic, chronic thing right now, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess that all rings true. And to that end, I’m curious, so they’re so exhausted they couldn’t choose between a hamburger and a cheeseburger, and I imagine sometimes it’s exaggeration, sometimes it’s not, because I’ve been there before. Then is there sort of an acid test, a rule of thumb, or guideline you use for too tired, inadequately rested, try again later?

Jodi Hume
Yeah. So, I thought about drawing this out almost like a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but how to know if you are just, “Stick a fork and be done.” Like, anytime you’re spinning your wheels on a thing where you’re just turning and turning and turning, it’s good to check in, like, “Do I need a nap?” If everything starts to feel heavy and not fun, that’s another time where if you sort of, I think in metaphor a lot. If you do a 360 spin around everything in your life and nothing is like, “Oh, that’s a place where that feels good,” that’s a really good sign you just need to get out.

And I want to be super clear about something. I preach this talk, I stand on this soapbox all the time, and I am just as bad about this. We went on a vacation in August sort of, I mean, it wasn’t even a real vacation. That’s kind of the point. And we could only get this little cabin in the middle of nowhere. It’s from Monday to Friday, and that felt like a vacation. I knew we needed to get out of here because we’ve been in here for weeks, and months and months, and that felt like a long time, and I didn’t really through the fact that you check into the cabin on Monday at like 4:00, and you check out like 10:00 on Friday, so, really, it was only like three days so it didn’t really quite scratch my reset itch.

And I came back over the weekend, and I did some work on Monday, and I really needed that renewal and I wasn’t feeling it. But on Tuesday, a friend of mine called me to see if I wanted to go for a hike. And, of course, what’s my immediate thought? “I can’t take the morning off. I was just gone for a week. I got to get back to work.” But it was the only day that week that was going to be nice, and so I went. And here’s why I’m telling you this story because I feel like it provided me quantitative evidence of what happens neurologically speaking when you are, basically, your brain is like a watered-up piece of paper.

Because I love to take pictures, I love taking pictures, and when I got home from this hike, this three and a half-hour hike, the first half of my camera roll, the first half of the hike on my camera roll is two pictures, and they’re the most boring, obligatory, like if somebody said, “Jodi, you have to take pictures of the trees and pictures of the sky,” and that’s it. There’s nothing of interest. And then, by halfway through, I start taking like a few pictures. Last, like half hour, or 40 minutes of the hike, I take like 70 pictures, and they are some of the coolest, most interesting, like, really, I love these photos.

And for the next three days, I was like on fire. I got more done, decisions were easy, everything seemed simpler, and it’s like that camera roll. I just watched my brain unfold back to its normal shape, and I felt it. Like, I felt more relaxed. So, the other thing, too, is I would just say you don’t have to…you don’t necessarily need validity that you need a break. It’s not going to hurt you to get like an extra break, so just take a break and see if it helps, and use that as evidence to give yourself permission to take the next break.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I think that’s great advice for a lot of people.

Jodi Hume
It’s so hard to take though. It’s so hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess what I was just driving at is so there’s one place that’s like just clear, it’s like, “Nothing seems fun or interesting. Okay, check. Definitely, I need some refreshment.” I’m having a hard time making even the most basic of decisions, like, “What do I feel like eating?” All right. Another great indicator. Rest is urgently needed. Anything else that leaps to mind for you there?

Jodi Hume
Just staying a little bit more attuned to your energy level before it gets that depleted because it takes more at that point. So, I think of it, in business we talk a lot about financial capital, and I think a lot about energetic and emotional capital, and just paying attention. It sounds kind of corny but I check in, I won’t say into it every day. I’m just not that routine about things. But every couple of days I kind of check in on, “What is giving me energy and what is taking energy?” And it’s just a math formula, “Are there more things giving me energy than taking energy?”

And not every day is going to be like that. You’re going to have days where there’s more taking than getting. It happens. But the sum total has to be that you, for it to be sustainable, is that you’re at least neutral if not positive. And I use that to judge the mix of clients I have at any given time, or the type of work that I’m doing, or even in parenting. Like, my husband and I both have…I sing in a band, my husband plays in a pool league. We do those things because we’re better parents if we’re happy humans. So, just making sure that you don’t get depleted along the way so that you don’t actually need a litmus test because you’re just making sure. It’s just nutrition really, making sure the good things are going in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s give an example then. So, when stuck, and then we disentangle, and it’s all clear.

Jodi Hume
Yeah, just like that. That’s all there is to it. Just like that. No, so, here’s one of my favorite stories actually. So, a few years ago, I had a client call, because it hits on some of the reasons why this work feels so important to me. A client called me, I’d known him for quite a while, but we hadn’t worked together in a little while, and he said, “I want to run this by you because everyone in my life says this thing is a really good idea. And on paper, I know it’s a really good idea, and I’m dragging my feet, and I don’t know why.” I was like, “All right. Let’s dig into it. Tell me what’s going on.”

And so, the deal was that he had an opportunity to, I forget whether it was a merger or an acquisition, kind of doesn’t matter, to like merge with this other company. And on paper, almost no one in the world would say it was a bad idea. Like, on paper it looked like a really good opportunity financially speaking, growth of the business, all these kinds of things. If you sort of flip over to the personal side of his life, because of those things, his wife was super excited about it even, she’s like, “This is great. This is the growth you’ve been looking for, and blah, blah, blah.” So, he’s getting support from there. His business friends, he was in a peer group, were all saying like, “How could you say no to this? This is a fantastic idea.”

And he said, “I lie in bed awake at night,” which is where a lot of the stories that come to me start. I often hear, like, “This is what I’m worrying about at night.” “So, I’m lying in bed awake at night, and I just get sick to my stomach when I talk about doing this thing.” So, I do what I do. I poke around, because it’s not like…I’m no oracle. It’s not like I know all the answers.

So, I kept asking him questions, I kept kind of poking around, looking under this rock, looking under that rock, sort of pulling on one thread, that didn’t untangle anything, pulling on this one. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me, and I said, “Hold on a second. How old is your son right now?” And he was going into his senior year. And I said, “What is your next year going to look like if you go ahead with this deal?” And he was like, “Oh, I’m going to be gone. I have to travel here. I have to travel there. I’m going to be in Phoenix for this amount of time and whatnot.” And I was like, “Huh,” and he was like, “Why?” I was like, “Didn’t you say at one point that it was really important for you to be around these last couple of years of high school?” And there was this long pause, and he was like, “That’s it.” That was the thing that was like stuck in the back that this personal detail, which doesn’t show up on sort of the business conversations.

And this is one of the most important things for me is that there are things that have to do with this specific company that are all really, really important. Then there’s a list of questions and curiosities that have to do with the business in general, or the sort of family circumstances, and then there’s the person themselves and their weird quirks and strange things they care about. And if you’re really curious about all of them, you kind of dig down to a thing that, all of a sudden, zings on it.

And he didn’t want to miss that last time, and so, basically, that was sort of sticking this oar in the water. And the minute I mentioned his son, he got it. He’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to miss this time.” I’m like, “Right.” And the cool thing about this is that didn’t mean he didn’t do the deal, because it was still a really great thing, but with that knowledge and that awareness he was able to do it in a way that didn’t completely ruin that entire year. He was able to stay here more. That meant it not being as great a deal because he had to make some concessions but that was okay because this really mattered to him.

And so, what it is, what I think is important here for decision, in decision support, is any way that you can make the invisible more visible, to bring those things into light so that then you can use them to decide better.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. It’s like we know things in our body, in our emotions, in our subconscious, in our intuition, that we can’t yet articulate. But there’s something there that’s real, and so that’s kind of magical.

Jodi Hume
You do not step over it. That’s the thing. It’s like if you step over that, if you step over whatever it is that’s making you drag your feet, there’s a cost to it. And the interesting thing is sometimes what’s hanging you up is just a fear or a story you’re making up. That whole threat of things comes up a lot where when somebody’s telling you what’s going on, to me it kind of feels like a peanut M&M, it’s a terrible metaphor because, in this case, chocolate is bad, or not bad but just not useful and so I struggle with that here.

But when somebody’s telling me a situation that they’re trying to figure out, there’s always this, you know, the peanut is like the nugget of truth. There’s always this truth that is really real that’s in there if you listen. But then they often, and by “they,” I mean also me sometimes, you wrap it up in suppositions about other people and assigning intent on, “This happened, and, clearly, she said because X, Y, Z,” and then they tell you this elaborate story, that you’re like, “Wow, I couldn’t have made that connection if I tried. Like, those two things are not synonymous.” And then they’d layer on all these things, and then they create this like swirls of stuff that makes it really hard to decide, but only some of that is factual, and some of it is story. And the story might be right but when you conflate them altogether it makes it really hard to decide.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m sold. So, Jodi, go ahead.

Jodi Hume
Well, I was just going to say, doing this work is simply like watching someone else parallel park a car. And the cool thing is almost anyone can do it for you with just a tiny bit of structure. And so, the one thing that I will tell people to do, because, like I say, I mean, you can try it for yourself, and sometimes I can do it for myself. It’s really hard. But it’s just simply for the first, I don’t know, five, 10 minutes, just a little bit a time. They’re only allowed to ask you questions, and that also means you can’t say a suggestion by just like raising your voice at the end so it sounds like a question, like, “Have you considered dah, dah, dah, dah?” That’s not a question.

Just be what I think of as like stupidly curious. Because, a lot of times, when people are talking to us, we want to sound really smart, like we want to be helpful and give great insights and whatnot. And I’m a big fan of asking questions that you think you might know the answer to, like being brave enough to ask, “Well, how does that feel?” when something is like you think you’re supposed to know how it feels. Because doesn’t everybody feel happy or sad when that thing happens? Well, guess what? Maybe not.

And being brave enough to just ask questions and be super curious and dig into a thing, you will often…because the other magic trick is that there’s a great portion of time where somebody is actually working on the wrong problem. Like, they want to work on this problem because they’re trying to avoid a different one. And so, if you listen for that, and get down to that one, a lot of times the decision is easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, already, we’re getting some takeaways here. One, find a partner. It doesn’t sound like they need to be a genius or have any special credentials or training beyond your pro tips right now. All right. So, find a partner. And then, let’s say, maybe we want to be that partner for somebody or we want to give instructions for, “Hey, partner, here’s what I need you to do for me,” lay it on us, what do we tell them in terms of how that’s done?

Jodi Hume
Biggest thing is start off asking questions and just be really curious. The second one is a little bit, it can be a little bit harder for some people, although I actually think a lot of people are much better at this than they imagine, which is paying attention to your intuition, which is when I say that I mean the actual physical experience. Like, if when somebody is talking, you feel a little bit sick to your stomach, it doesn’t mean that they’re nauseating you. It just means that something is amiss there. Like, they might be skipping over something, or, I don’t know, there’s something going on there that’s worth being a little more curious about and asking some other questions. Or even saying like, “Hey, that felt weird.”

The same goes for if something doesn’t make sense. Trust that you are smart enough to follow along and that you do not need to understand every single little intricacy of their business to really hear what’s happening. And it’s kind of like listening. You know, those visual puzzles where if you relaxed your eyes, the image comes out?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, the stereograms?

Jodi Hume
Oh, good job. I would’ve never come up with that in a million years. But let’s call it that. Yeah, where you relax your eyes and then a horse comes out or something. It’s like listening like that. You don’t have to listen like you are solving a puzzle. You listen with like all of you and just notice what happens. Because here’s the most important thing, there may come a point in the conversation where throwing out your adviser experience might be helpful, but do not assume that the same will apply.

I worked with lots of companies who have been there, done that millions of times. You might have the same kind of company but because X worked over here, it does not mean X will work over here. And so, just resist the urge to sort of leap in as Galahad with the answer, feeling like that’s what scores the points. What scores the point is getting down to what really matters to this person in this situation, and helping them just see the landscape a little more clearly, and then they can find their own way out. That’s really what matters, is helping them see more clearly because they have all the answers. They just can’t see them at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And with some of these questions, what are some of your favorite go-to’s?

Jodi Hume
That’s a really great question. Some of them sound really lame. I said one before, like, “What’s that like? Or how do you feel about that?” Sound like really cheesy therapy questions or something, but you’ll be shocked at what comes out. The other thing that I often ask about is when if you listen in a story, if somebody feels like they jumped from point A to point Z, and it feels like they’re being super ADD and just like pinballing around, notice that and ask them. Like, “How are those things related?” because they jumped. They made that jump because there is a correlation there. And it might seem like, “Oh, I’m bouncing all around.” Like, “No, no, no, you were laying out breadcrumbs on a path of what you are worried about or concerned about.” And so, asking about those leaps is another really good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is great because there is a connection there or, else, they wouldn’t have made the leap, and that could be powerful to identify.

Jodi Hume
And probably the most important thing though is to remember that if you are trying to play this role for someone, or if you’re telling someone how to play this role for you, but I’ll stay in the context of if you are trying to play this role for someone, this is not about having the answers for people. That is not what’s happening here. You are just providing the space, and the permission, and the curiosity for them to figure out their own thing because, otherwise, you’re a consultant. That’s the distinction. Like, you’re not there as the oracle that they’re coming to for advice. You’re just creating the space.

And it always reminds me of this story for when I was like probably seven or eight years old, and we went to a vacation Bible school for the summer. And I came home with one of these little white stars on cups where some sort of plant planted in. I don’t remember what the lesson was, but my sister and I both have one. And it was six weeks later, her little plant was like six inches tall, mine nothing. Like, not even a little loop of a thing coming out of the dirt, and I was, of course, devastated. I don’t know why, but I was. I remember being really sad, looking at it on the window, and hers was growing. I was probably competitive but, whatever, it doesn’t matter.

And I remember my mom coming in, and now that I’m a mom, I’m sure she was just crushed for me because I was clearly sad. And she looks over, and she goes, “Hmm,” and she reaches over. And with just like her pointy finger, she flicks this little clump of dirt, like just this little tiny clump, whatever that is, of dirt, and, boing, up comes my plant, which was nowhere as big as my sister’s. But it was growing, it was doing everything it needed to do. It just had this little clump of dirt that was a little bit heavier than it had the strength to be. And when she just flicked it out of the way, it got about the business of continuing to grow and it didn’t even need our help.

And that so often feels like the work of being someone’s decision support or like watching them parallel park a car, you’re just kind of pointing out the things, but they are doing the work. It is not your job to be like the rescuer here or the answer provider. You’re just facilitating their answer for themselves really.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you, Jodi. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about energy, or decision-making, or supporting other’s decision-making, before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jodi Hume
Just that the thing that I would really watch out for that ties all these things together for me is there’s that stupid phrase that came up somewhere in leadership where it’s like lonely at the top. And I think in business, it’s stupid for it to ever feel lonely. I don’t know how we made it so taboo to have any conversation in business that doesn’t look like, “Everything is great. We know all the answers and we’re killing it.” It’s a huge disservice to the growth of the company and to the growth of the people who are trying to grow the company. And so, finding these places where you can have these conversations that don’t have anywhere else to go, is I just think is powerfully important for the individual people but also for the company’s as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jodi Hume
Yeah. So, definitely, my favorite quote is that Seth Godin’s quote, that, “If you have a problem you can’t talk about, now you have two problems.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Jodi Hume
That one would definitely go to the neuroscience of sleep and how being, I’m going to make this very short, but being…just switching to like six hours of sleep at night not only has just as bad of effective as being awake for three days, but in comparative studies to those two groups, the people who switched to six hours of sleep, not only did they lose 15 points in IQ testing on the cognitive testing, like the before and after, but the really scary thing was the people who had been awake for three days were very aware of their impair ability and felt like, “I shouldn’t drive and I don’t feel so good.” The people who had just switched to six hours were equally impaired but reported zero awareness of that impairment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very fascinating. Now that impairment, so 15 points decline in IQ test scores, I got to believe, in some ways, those who were sleep-deprived for three days were more impaired on some dimensions.

Jodi Hume
You would think so. You would think so. It’s been quite a number of years since I read the actual study but I know that they had comparative…now, what they may have had is differences in the areas of impairment. That may have been zero, that may have been the case. But they had equivalent overall degradation in cognitive ability from the umbrella standpoint.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Jodi Hume
And scary that they weren’t aware of it. I think that’s the part that I really honed in on, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, and they didn’t even know it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And how about a favorite book?

Jodi Hume
My favorite book, if it’s not one of the how not to have hard conversation books that I love, would probably be this little book that somehow ended up in my mailbox one day called Winning with Accountability. It’s by Henry Evans, I believe. And what I love about it, I can tell you in one fell swoop, which is the whole book is about using accountability not as an after-the-fact punitive measure of like what you do to people after they screw up, but, instead, how to frontload accountability as a culture in an organization so that you don’t get off the rails in the first place, which I just find so much more valuable than, “Well, how do we hold people accountable?” I’m like, “You mean to whack them with a stick? They’re grownups. I don’t think that’s very helpful.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, sticks are not the tool.

Jodi Hume
Sticks are not the tool.

Pete Mockaitis
But is there a favorite tool that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jodi Hume
My favorite tools were whiteboards and sticky notes and helping people visualize and see what was previously fuzzy. And so, that is all gone the way of the dodo this year in 2020. So, there’s a couple of online tools, both Miro and Mural that I have been using that are pretty cool. I’m actually almost liking them more than my by-hand facilitation tools to help people kind of see things that are bouncing around in there, but it’s such a blur because it’s just bouncing all over each other. So, you kind of lay it out for them, they’re like, “Oh, okay. Now I get it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Jodi Hume
I like to call it strategic hooky. Kind of goes back to the conversation we were having about when I just feel like beating my head against a wall, or I’m slogging, and I’m not even joking. I think it’s a strategic habit to know when to play hooky, and go play guitar for the day, or go for a hike, or do something to get my head back in its normal shape. And I have never once regretted that, and I end up getting…The excuse is, “I always have too much to do to do that.” That’s always the excuse. But I get 10 times done a thousand times faster if I, on the regular, take some sort of hooky break.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Jodi Hume
There are probably two things that get quoted back to me the most frequently. One is that progress usually looks like a new set of problems, which sounds kind of depressing but it’s really not. It’s the recognition that as you grow a thing, that you will encounter newer and different problems. And those really aren’t usually as frustrating and as like drag you down-ish as it is to just be hitting the same problems over and over again.

And so, I will often joke with my clients, and then they will joke, they will email me, I will get little messages from old, old clients sometimes, they’re like, “Yay, we have even new problems.” But if you can’t enjoy the new problems then growth of any kind is going to be a double-edged sword for you. So, the faster you can kind of embrace that, that every solution comes with its own new set of problems, and just enjoy it, the better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jodi Hume
The easiest place is at LeadingClarity.com, and you can read about the work that I do, you can subscribe to my podcast that I have each week. But the other thing that I offer, just to listeners of these interviews that I do, is a 20-minute time with me that they can schedule. And I want to be super clear about something. That is, not only is it not a sales call but I, literally, will not discuss with you on that call working with me. If that’s something that interests you, we have to do that on another call. I want it to be that clean. It’s just I’m beta-testing.

I’m doing it for two reasons. One, if people feel like they don’t have a place for conversations to go, I want them to at least get a little bit of a taste of what that can feel like, and maybe even brainstorm where they can get that in their lives. And, two, it’s also helping me out a little bit because I am beta-testing how to do that availability at more of a scale. And I just want to see, like, “What’s the tiniest little bit of having space for that that is even helpful?” And so, I’ve had quite a few of them so far, and I’m absolutely loving them. They’re a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, how do we get one of those?

Jodi Hume
It’s right on the page. Like I said, it’s not a public page that you have to know the link to get there. And so, anyone can schedule the 20 minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jodi Hume
I don’t want to beat the dead horse about like, “Go talk to someone.” But I probably am because, right now, this year in particular, not only is it a hard year, but the thing that I think affects people the most is when all of their issues blur together because then you don’t have as much clarity on what to do about them, and it’s almost like everything in life conflated in on itself.

So, if you weren’t absolutely in love with your house, you’re super feeling it right now. If there’s any crack in your relationship, you’re super feeling it right now. You’re spending tons of time with your kids, you’re also being their teachers, the economy is unstable. I mean, there’s so much that as much as self-care or getting what you need, all those kind of conversations have sometimes gotten kind of where you’re side-eyed from some people, it is even more important right now that you do whatever it is that you need to like fill back up.

So, whether that’s spending time playing with your guitar, or going outside, or running, or whatever it is, you have to find time for that. It’s not sustainable without it.

Pete Mockaitis
Jodi, this has been powerful. Thank you so much for spending the time. And I wish you lots of luck and great decisions.

Jodi Hume
Thanks, Pete.

617: Enhancing Your Productivity by Managing Your Mental Energy with David Kadavy

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

David Kadavy explains how to harness your mental energy to improve your productivity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How our obsession with time management hurts us 
  2. Three questions to ask to get more work done
  3. How to easily shift to the optimal mental state for work 

 

About David

David Kadavy is a bestselling author, blogger, podcaster, and speaker. Through his blogging at kadavy.net and his podcast, Love Your Work, he helps people find satisfaction through following their crafts, even if it takes them down unconventional paths. David’s writing has appeared in QuartzObserverInc.comThe Huffington PostMcSweeny‘s Internet Tendency, and Upworthy. He has spoken in eight countries, including appearances at SXSW at TEDx. He lives in Medellín, Colombia. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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David Kadavy Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

David Kadavy
Pete, it is good to be here. And I have to say, I’m so much more comfortable this time than I was last time that we spoke.

Pete Mockaitis
That was wild. That moment is etched in my memory for several reasons. One, it was one of my last hurrahs in my apartment of 10 years that I called the Strat because I got married just a few weeks later. Two, it was insanely hot.

David Kadavy
Insanely hot for the record.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I was sweating because it was hot and I was sweating because I hadn’t done very many podcasts, like, live in person. Most of them were over the internet but you were in my apartment, and it’s like, “Oh, I think I clicked multi-track.” And I remember here’s how committed you are to the craft, David. I don’t know if you remember this. I think of you all the time because I offered you a LaCroix, and you said, “After the show because I don’t want to be belchy when we’re recording.” And I was like, “Now, there’s a man. It’s a hot day. Turning down a delicious cold LaCroix so he won’t burp on the show, that’s commitment.”

David Kadavy
Well, but, seriously, could you drink a LaCroix while recording? I know I can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I did it before. I just go off to the side for a burp off mic.

David Kadavy
I had the same thing happen with another podcast host who was like, “Hey, let’s order some Indian food. We can eat it right before the show.” I’m like, “What? Are you serious? You think you can eat food, like Indian food, and then immediately record?” Maybe he can. He’s a great podcaster. But maybe he’s got an amazing digestive system or something, but I couldn’t record after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no. Hey, why risk it? Well, speaking of risk, one thing you did which was pretty adventurous and exciting was straight up moving to Colombia, and that’s where you live now. From Chicago to Colombia. How is that going?

David Kadavy
It’s going great. I had some problems. They kicked me out a couple times. But I’m back. I was having trouble with the visa that I had. I had just like a freak incident and had to leave because of it. So, now I’ve been here for five years. And one of the main things that really attracted me to being down here is this project that I’m working on right now, this book that I have coming out. And so, now is kind of the end of the experiment, but now I have a life here, so I’m not leaving.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, Mind Management, Not Time Management: Productivity When Creativity Matters. It’s fun. Like, when we spoke last time, it seemed like you were just sort of in the middle of formulating and honing these ideas. And now, we’ve got a polished gem of a finished something. Lay it on us, what’s sort of the main idea behind this book?

David Kadavy
Yeah, thank you. And middle is about right because I’ve been working on this thing for about 10 years when we talked roughly five years ago, something like that. And it really all started when I got my first book deal about 10 years ago, almost to the day, and I sort of found that, first of all, I wasn’t a writer. I hated writing as a kid. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and, all of a sudden, I get this book deal after doing a little bit of writing, and I decide to go ahead and accept that, to take it on, take on the challenge.

Only, it was way more difficult than I had expected. I just found that everything that I had learned about productivity totally did not prepare me for writing a book. One of those things would be time management. So, to write this book, I just cleared away as much time as I possibly could. I cleared away my schedule, I started to outsource things like my grocery shopping and my meal preparation and having my house cleaned, and doing certain errands and all these things. Cleared away as much time as I could and sat down to write. And I couldn’t do it. I was just like banging my head against the wall all day.

And, eventually, I did realize that I could have this sort of 15-minute bursts where, all of a sudden, the writing would come really easily. And I did some experimentation, I sort of came up with a grab bag of rituals that I could go to, to get this writing done. And when that book was finally done, I sort of looked back on the experience, and thought, like, “Wow, what happened?” And I started to look into the behavioral science research, I started to look into the neuroscience of creativity, and I started to realize that there were a lot of different things that supported the patterns that I had come up with in terms of trying to make this creative work happen.

And we already have quite a bit of knowledge about how creative work happens, but the pieces haven’t really been put together, and a lot of us are still working on this kind of old paradigm of time management in trying to get things done. And so, that’s what I’m talking about in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, beautiful. Let’s dig in then. So, what makes the difference in those moments of 15 minutes, “Whoa, words are flowing easily,” versus, “I’m banging my head against the wall. Nothing is happening”? What’s kind of the core differentiator there?

David Kadavy
Yeah. So, I think it helps to first understand what we’re going for when we’re going for creativity. Sort of the building block of creativity is the moment of insight and there’s a couple of neuroscientists, one is actually in the Chicago area, Mark Beeman and then John Kounios, who was at Drexel University, and they have examined in people’s brains the moment of insight.

You know, when you had these kind of aha moments where you’re like working on a problem and you’re really struggling? And then, all of a sudden, you kind of have an aha moment. It’s like you feel lit. It’s like a jolt. They found out that that is actually a neurologically distinct moment in time. They made an image of the brain as that happens. There’s this moment where the brain goes quiet, and then there’s just bursts of activity, and that is the moment of insight. And what happens, and what people report during these moments of insight, is they just go from not having the answer to the problem to, all of a sudden, having the answer to the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love it.

David Kadavy
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
More please.

David Kadavy
And what happens is there’s just these different regions of the brain that are all kind of communicating with each other at once, connecting these concepts that are very disparate. If you think about your brain like a racquetball court, and there’s just all these balls bouncing around in the racquetball court, and every once in a while, a couple of those balls, or a few of the those balls collide, and that’s like a moment of insight.

So, what you’re going for when you’re going through those moments is actually the opposite of what a person would expect. We normally think that if you’re going to do some work that you want to be alert. You want to really be on your toes, etc. Well, it turns out, when you want to be creative, actually the thing that makes those moments of insight happen is a brain state that’s completely different from that. That’s more like you want more of a relaxed state.

And one of the ways to describe that is that your prefrontal cortex, the front part of your brain, is less active in these moments. And so, your prefrontal cortex, that’s what helps you plan, it helps you suppress urges, it’s the thing that’s like, “We’re just going to cook at home because we’re saving for this trip to Hawaii,” or, “I’m not going to have that extra donut. I’m trying to lose weight.” Like, that’s your prefrontal cortex at work helping you with all that planning, prioritizing, etc.

Think of your prefrontal cortex as being in that racquetball court, and your prefrontal cortex is obsessed with the rules of the game. It’s seeing all the balls bouncing around, and it’s like, “Oh, no, I have to make sure that all these balls hit the front wall before they hit the floor,” it’s the rules of racquetball basically. And so, the intention of the prefrontal cortex is to follow the rules, but the result is fewer collisions, fewer insights.

And so, one of the things that is really helpful when trying to make creative work happen is to kind of pick some time of day to work on your creative problems when your prefrontal cortex is sort of out to lunch or still sleeping. For a lot of people, that’s like first thing in the morning. A lot of people, wake up, you’re groggy, people reach for the coffee immediately. That grogginess is a gift. It’s a good time to start trying to think creatively.

Now, the process of being creative doesn’t stop there, but I’ll stop there because I’ve said a lot already.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. We had Michael Breus on the show, a sleep doctor, and he used the term groggy greatness, which I loved in terms of, yeah…

David Kadavy
I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
…a lot of times ideas, insights, show up right there, and I want to be able to capture them in the moment. So, that’s beautiful. So then, the thesis here is, and it might not only be creative work but there are sorts of different brain states in different types of work, and you’re looking for a match. Can you sort of lay out the whole framework for us here when it comes to we want to do great work, be it creative or another flavor, and lots of it, how do we do that?

David Kadavy
I think we can start with let’s pull apart this title Mind Management, Not Time Management. There’s a specific reason why I put the “Not Time Management” part in it. It’s because we’re obsessed with time management as a culture. A lot of us don’t even realize it. It’s sort of like the water that we, the fish, are swimming in. This is something that I realized now, living in Colombia, which has a completely different conception of time.

And it was interesting when I looked at this, like, “How long has time management been around? How long have we been thinking about time?” We take it for granted. We don’t realize that people didn’t know what time it was, most people, until 150 years ago where there might be a clock tower in the middle of the village, or something, and there weren’t time zones until we had to deal with all the trains that were crossing through time zones, and trying to get time tables that looked right.

And basically, the birth of time management is the moment when scientific management was created. This guy, Frederick Taylor, basically, standing with a stopwatch next to a worker, watching the worker stack bricks for example, and saying, “Oh, well, grab the brick this way, turn it this way, bend over in this way, etc. and then put the brick there. Okay, now, here’s the prescribed movements for stacking bricks. We’re even going to build a scaffolding so that you don’t have to bend over to pick up the bricks, etc. And now we have made the process of stacking bricks as efficient as possible. We have put the maximum amount of work in the time available, and now we’re just going to be so much more productive because of that.”

And so, this is a relic that is still with us today, is that we are watching our time all the time. We have, what I call, time worship as a culture. Time is so pervasive in our culture we hardly even realize it. Notice the way that we negotiate with time quite often. I know I used to… might be coding in my cubicle years ago when I worked in a cubicle, and I’m just like ears deep in it, I’m just totally in it, it’s taken me all day to get to this moment, and, boom, somebody taps me on the shoulder. What do they say? “Hey, Dave,” “Got a minute?” “A minute? Is a minute what we’re looking for here? I mean, because I’m focused. It took me all day to get to this point. I’ve got momentum going. I’m in this mental state, and now you want me to show you how to change the paper on the printer. And now, because I go do that, and it only takes me a minute, but, hey, now I’ve just lost the entire afternoon because I can’t get back into that state.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

David Kadavy
And that’s what we’re looking for is not to treat time as a commodity. Time is not like bushels of corn. It’s not like blocks of frozen orange juice concentrate that you can just line up one after another as if they’re the same thing. If you spend an hour a day writing, at the end of a year you’ll probably have a book. But if you sat down and say, “Well, I’m going to write for 365 hours straight,” you’re not going to get the same result. You’d probably be dead.

So, it’s different. Time isn’t this fungible thing that you can just trade out one after another, and this is one of the things that really frustrates me when I hear people say, “Oh, there’s only 24 hours in the day. Time is the most precious commodity that we have.” No, there’s not 24 hours in the day. There’s like two, maybe four hours in the day. And, by the way, if there’s only 24 hours in the day, that tells you that, at some point, you’re squeezing blood from a stone. Like, yeah, you can manage your time up to a point but, eventually, you’re not going to have gains anymore from managing your time more.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Yeah, that totally makes sense in terms of if that’s the finite thing, you’re going to have a hard time getting big gains out of slicing that up a little bit differently.

David Kadavy
Well, actually, think about it like this way. I don’t know how many of your listeners are golfers, or if you’re a golfer, Pete, I don’t know if you’ve done much golfing.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve done it a couple times and it goes super well.

David Kadavy
Have you ever heard the expression, “Drive for show, putt for dough”?

Pete Mockaitis
I haven’t but I kind of get what you’re driving at, what you’re trying to convey, that the driving makes a huge long movement of that ball, that’s like, “Wow, that’s impressive. We all think you’re cool.” But it may well be those, the finer putts that make you a professional who gets a low score and earns money.

David Kadavy
Right. Well, this was the opinion for like 200 years in golf, was that, “Oh, putting is the most important part of the game.” Why? Because in like a standard round of golf, putts make up half of all the strokes in golf. But there was a guy out of Columbia University his name is Mark Broadie, and he really did a lot of statistical analyses in the game of golf, and has completely changed statistics in the game of golf.

And what he found was that putt for dough is not true. That when you really break it down, that is not the thing that separates amateurs from pros, it’s not the thing that separates the pros from the rest of the field necessarily when they win. That even though putts make up half of the game, they only make up 15% of the difference between, say, pros and amateurs. And so, this is what I call a raised floor. It’s this area where it looks like there’s a lot of room for progress because there’s a lot to work with there. And you get to a certain point, and you think you can keep making progress there but your efforts are better spent somewhere else.

Another example would be like with money. How much money can you save, really? Like, you’ve got to live your life, like spending a minute in the aisle trying to figure out whether this soup is worth five cents more than this other soup is not worth it at a certain level. And so, instead of trying to lower this raised floor, you try to raise the ceiling. And so, instead of how much time can you really save, instead of trying to do that, well, make better use of your time by finding your best energy and making the best possible use of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. I’m down. So, you lay out some three key questions for mind management along the lines of, “Hey, what kind of work do I need to do right now? What kind of mental state am I in? And then, how could I get into the right mental state?” which I think is just very tactically dead-on in terms of, “Here I am.” And so, maybe can you orient us, I guess, to the menu or to the categories of kinds of work? So, stacking bricks is different than writing a book. So, how would you go about categorizing these different flavors of work?

David Kadavy
Yeah, this goes pretty deep, but I do want to just add on at this point about those questions because that is really the best way to get the taste of it because we do go deep in the book, and there’s a lot to cover. But, really, just asking yourself this question next time that you’re about to work on something, “What is the mental state that I’m in right now?” And then ask yourself, “Well, what do I need to do that fits that mental state?”

And if you happen to be in a situation where you really need to do a certain thing, then you can ask yourself, “Well, what is the mental state I would like to be in to be able to do that thing?” And you can kind of reverse-engineer it. A good way to do that is to say, “Well, when was the last time I felt that way?” And then you can start to look at the conditions, “Where was I sitting? What time of day was it? What day of the week was it? Was there something that I ate? Was there something that I drank? Did I drink a LaCroix right before?” Things like that.

Now, that’s a good start, by the way. That’s a good start to ask yourself that question, be aware of this idea that the time that you’re most creative is not necessarily the time that you’re most alert. It’s probably not the time that you’re most alert. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve got it broken down to seven different mental states of creative work.

Pete Mockaitis
Bring it.

David Kadavy
Okay. It’s an acronym. I’ve got a little acronym for it, makes it easier to remember. PERG PAR. Now, we’ve got two main words here we’re thinking about if we want to remember this acronym. PER and PAR. Talking about golf again, the G stands for the game of golf, PER golf PAR, so PERG PAR. And those stand for prioritize, explore, research, generate, polish, administrate, and recharge.

I don’t know if you’ve got time for all those, but some of my favorites there, I think, the distinction between generate and explore is a very interesting one. Generate is, as a writer myself, when I’m in the generate state, I plan to get some writing done, some writing that I can actually use, use to a point.

There’s the famous quote, supposedly from Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober.” That’s what the polish is the edit part. So, I’m not worried too much about, “Is this fact exactly right? Am I spelling this correctly?” I’m just trying to get some sentences together that I can later go back when I’m in a different mental state, when I’m more alert. And if I ran across something where I’m just kind of stuck, I just make some brackets, type it in there. So, I’m staying in state. I’m not switching state all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
“Cool story about…that’s inspiring AF.” Moving on.

David Kadavy
Yeah, right. Exactly. That’s actually a great example. You have a situation in that where you want to illustrate something, and you’re like, “Yeah, cool story that’s inspiring AF,” right? And then, later, you go sit down in your recliner that evening with a brandy, and think, “What are some cool stories that I know,” and you do that part separately.

Now, if you’re somebody who already has a grab bag of stories, you’re a writer like me and you collect these things, you might already have something ready to go and you write it. But if you get stuck, you’ve got that. You’re trying to stay in state because it’s a waste of mental energy to be switching these mental states all the time.

Think about a car that’s switching gears. Gears are coupled with one another, that’s moving the car forward, and then as you’re switching gears, well, for a moment, those gears aren’t coupled anymore, and so there are some energy that’s going to waste that way. And so, it’s much better to just stay in state. So, that’s generate.

Now, I did mention I promised that I was going to talk a little bit about explore because there are some fuzzy borders in between these categories where there might be some things where it feels like it’s a generate activity but it’s actually an explore activity. And this happens with me when I write, quite often. So, I actually have a habit that’s very weird that I do every single morning. With my eyes still closed, I have a little portable word processor that I keep in my nightstand drawer. With my eyes still closed, it’s basically a keyboard with like an old-school LCD screen that you might see on a calculator, it’s called an AlphaSmart. You can DuckDuckGo it and see what I’m talking about. They cost 20 bucks, 30 bucks, and they’re really just for writing. I have it in my nightstand.

So, I’ll just grab it out of my nightstand with my eyes still closed, turn it on, and I just write a hundred words. At least a hundred words. I sometimes write more, sometimes a thousand, sometimes just 2,000, but it’s at least a hundred words. I make sure to do that every single morning. Just make a really simple goal for myself.

Now, I’m writing but it’s not generate. It’s explore, because when I’m done with that activity, what I do is I delete it. Now, why would I write, why would I bother writing in the morning and I’m just going to delete it? What do you think about that, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have a number of ideas in terms of it can…I think you delete but I imagine you read it before you delete it.

David Kadavy
Actually, I don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

David Kadavy
Here’s the thing, all right, and this is where I think a lot of people get stuck on creative work, and trying to write my first book, this is where I got stuck because I thought, “Well, I’ll just put 250 words a day on my calendar,” and I was banging out my 250 words a day. Well, it doesn’t work that way. There are stages to creativity. There are stages to creative work.

Before you reach that moment of insight, before you make those connections from various parts of your brain, you have to have the source material in your brain first. And this is where a lot of the struggle with writing, is we sit down and we think, “All right, I’m going to write this press release. And, okay, where do I even begin?” You expect that you’re going to have this wonderful polished prose that comes out, and there’s all these different facts you need to look up, and you’re like, “Well, wait. Let me go talk to the CEO really quick and see what the CEO has to say so I can collect that quote,” etc. but there’s always things that you need to collect first.

And our brain power is very limited. Our working memory, or our short-term memory, not exactly the same thing but they can be used interchangeably for our purposes, is limited. We can remember two, four, seven things, this is why phone numbers are broken up into groups of four, credit card numbers, etc. so we can remember them. That’s what we’re doing when we’re trying to take in information and solve a problem at the same time is we’re trying to use our working memory for all of that. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You need to get the information into your long-term memory first. And then, later, when your working memory is clear, then you can start to dig into that long-term memory and start trying to make those different connections.

So, when I do my morning writing sessions, which I call an explore session, I’m really just exploring whatever is in my brain. It’s exercising those thoughts in my mind. And those kind of seep in, and it’s one of these things where not everything is going to be useful. Most of it is not going to be useful, but it’s going to help me exercise some different connections. And then, later on, next time that I’m actually sitting down and writing, maybe I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I had that interesting thing I was writing about the other day,” and it’ll come out.

Now, if I do need to capture something that’s just really great and I just don’t want to miss it, then I have ways of capturing it and transferring it to my computer, but most of the time I just delete everything because it’s a different state. It’s a state of exploration, as the name implies, where that’s one activity that can be explored. But another activity that can be explored is like if I’m reading something.

When I’m writing my book about design and learning about the history of typography, I might be in a situation where I am actually not reading about typography. I’m reading about some other possibly, maybe related subject, like the Protestant Revolution, that might lead me to something, but I actually have no idea.

And so, that’s why I make the distinction between, say, that exploration and generate. And that’s also why I make the distinction between explore and research because if I’m researching, that implies that I’m searching again. That implies that I’m searching for something that I already have, some kind of idea what I’m looking for, and I’m a little bit more focused on trying to find it.

So, you can start to see this is an introduction for a few of those categories, the ways that we’re starting to break up these things that seem like they are things that we just sit down and do all at once. We’re starting to break them up into different situations where we’re doing different things, we’re using different energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I get you. And I’d love it if you could maybe just give me sort of like the one sentence-ish definition of each of these things, “So, prioritizing is this, explore is this, research is this.” Because I think I’ve got my perception of what these words mean, but as you’ve just done some distinguishing, there could be some insight there. So, lay it on us, rapid fire, put you on the spot, what’s prioritizing?

David Kadavy
Okay. Prioritizing is you’re planning. This is something I do every week. I look at my calendar and I make a bullet point list, and I rewrite everything on my calendar, and I just make sure that if I’m going to the airport, I know what time I’m going to go to the airport, depending on traffic, how long it’s going to take for me to get to the airport, when I’m going to leave, when I’m going to eat lunch, all that stuff, instead of just waking up that morning and just trying to figure it out and getting to a different state. That’s what prioritize is. It’s very energy-hungry. Your prefrontal cortex does that prioritization, something you want to do separately.

Explore is that you’re collecting information. Collecting information might be going through ideas or brainstorming. You’re collecting information but not necessarily specific information, right? You kind of have a vague idea of what you’re looking for and you are allowing yourself to be in an open-minded state of looking for that. Starting to click?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s chill. Versus research, which we’re going to next, it’s kind of like, “I want my answer. Give me the answer.”

David Kadavy
Exactly. Research is, “What year was Snoop Dog born? I need to know that for this article that I’m writing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Facts first.

David Kadavy
Yeah, like if you want to know the fact, or you want to know, like, “I want to know exactly how confirmation bias works, and who discovered it, etc.” I need to look that up before I can fill out the brackets in this thing that I wrote when I was in the generate state, which is our next one, right?

Generate. We are trying to produce something that we can turn into usable, shippable work. And next is polish. We’re putting the finishing touches on it. Dotting the Is, crossing the Ts, putting the finishing touches. Refining it. Getting it ready to ship. Now, administrate. This is the stuff that you’ve got to do it. It’s hard to delegate but you got to do it. Maybe like you’re filling out your expense report, going through your email inbox and getting rid of this stuff is kind of low priority. For me, it’s always looking at financial statements.

And then, finally, recharge. And that’s the giving yourself a chance to get that energy back, giving yourself the evening, the weekend, taking a nap even in the afternoon to replenish that energy. And it also helps solve a lot of the problems that you’ve been working on while you’re not even actively thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess with administrate, so we’re talking about creative work, I’m also thinking about like people-y stuff. Like, much of this sort of benefits from the quiet, the silence, the non-interruptedness. And then I’m thinking there’s another vibe, I think like maker versus manager. Like, when you’re in the manager vibe, it’s almost like, well, heck, we almost can make a whole list separate list for like people activities because there’s like connect, there’s delegate, there’s coach, there’s challenge, there’s respond to be of service with quick answers to everybody who needs a slice and a quick bit of info to continue doing what they’re doing.

How do you think about that, the people-y stuff?

David Kadavy
Well, it’s funny because I’m an ambivert, more on the side of introvert so I do think about the people-y stuff about, “Am I going to be in the mood to talk to somebody at this particular time?” But, actually, the people-y stuff and my administrate stuff kind of I put them next to each other even though I’ve never actually thought about them as being related. So, like this conversation that we’re having right now, I consider this to be explore mental state. But I have these conversations later in the day because that’s when I’m just a little more alert, and I can think more on my feet, and have a conversation like that.

Now, as it happens, I have these conversations later in the week so I’ve got a rule, no meetings on Mondays or Tuesdays, because I want to be completely immersed in whatever it is that I’m working on. A lot of the things I’ve been working on have incubated over the weekend. I want to make the best possible use of that on Monday and Tuesday.

Now, towards the end of the week, my creative energy has started to wane. I’ve gone down a lot of different dead ends that maybe aren’t working out, yet I have produced some things but then I’ve got those dead ends. And so, it’s nice to have a conversation where I can start to explore and play with some of the things that I’ve been thinking about. But, also, that makes it a good time to work on administrative stuff, which is why Fridays, especially Friday afternoons, is when I spend time in the administrate state.

If I get an email from my accountant on a Monday, and it says, “Hey, review these financial statements,” I use a plugin called Boomerang, and I send it out of my inbox, and then it comes back into my inbox on Friday afternoon. I don’t even know that exists during that time. So, Friday afternoon, I’ve tapped out my creative energy, and I can do some stuff. Like, it’s not hard for me to look at financial statements, really. It’s not something that I want to spend my best creative energy on.

And so, I don’t necessarily think about the people part as being part of administrate necessarily. But I also do think about, if I’m going to be interacting with people, when is a good time for me to do that, and when are times that I don’t want to be doing that?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so I think that just having some of these language, and I think some folks might even really make it their own in terms of, like, “I like to call it task annihilation,” in terms of like how that energy feels in terms of, “I got a big list of quick things that I’m just going to go dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,” whatever.

David Kadavy
One of the most powerful things you can do, I think, to be productive is the moment that you know that a task needs to be done that you’re able to stop and think, and say to yourself, “Okay, this doesn’t need to be done now. When is the right time for me to do this? And what’s the state that I need to be in to do that?” And for a lot of people’s work, it’s going to be different. When they do have those chunks of time, when there’s a certain type of activity that they’re doing and there’s a certain energy they’re going for, and they can save everything for those times.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s great when you can do that, and sometimes you can’t, and it’s sort of like it’d be ideal if you could slot the task in where the state just naturally are, and other times you need to do the thing. So, how does one change their state?

David Kadavy
Yes. Well, first of all, fortunately, I think a lot of people are noticing with the quarantine, a lot of people are suddenly in more control of their time so they are actually grappling with this for the first time, where it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I actually have control over this. There’s something other than the clock dictating what I’m going to do so I need to figure out how to manage my energy in a way.” But sometimes you still have certain deadlines, you’ve got stuff that needs to get done. And, like I said, before, a good way to do that is to sort of think about a time when you were in that mental state.

There’s a great story from the chess champion Josh Waitzkin from his book The Art of Learning, where he talks about this executive who has a lot of trouble concentrating in meetings. And so, what Josh did with this executive was asked him, “Well, when’s the time when you feel in flow?” And the guy said, “Well, when I’m playing catch with my son, that’s when I really just feel in the moment. I wish I could feel that way when I’m in a meeting.” Well, it’s a little hard for him to play catch with his son while he’s in the meetings. Maybe you could do that today with Zoom.

But what Josh did was set up this sort of series of triggers that the executive could use. He said, “All right, before you play catch with your son, do these stretches, eat this snack, listen to this Bob Dylan song, then play catch with your son, and keep doing that.” And what he did was basically classically conditioned himself to have these different triggers that could get him into that state. And so, what he did was then he gradually removed certain things where he couldn’t play catch with his son, but before going to a meeting, he would do the stretches, eat the snack, listen to the Bob Dylan song. And, just through time, was eventually able to get to the point where he could just think of the Bob Dylan song and he would be in that state, and he could go into that meeting in that state.

Now, this isn’t something that you’re going to necessarily do with every little thing in your schedule, but maybe your key most important things, the most important states that you’re trying to get into, that maybe you’re in situations sometimes where you don’t have control over being able to get into that sate, then you have certain triggers setup.

Me, before I do a podcast interview, I actually have a whole set of warmups that I do. I took voice lessons when I was living in Chicago, and I’ve got the audio files for the warmups for that, I’ve got different tongue twisters I say, I got sort of a process that I use to take myself from that, I’ve been in my head writing all morning state, to this I’m going to be talking to Pete state. So, this is something you want to do with those important things that maybe you don’t always have the most control over.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that a lot. Like, music in particular, it’s sort of like there’s so many varieties of music. They could just naturally say, “Oh, yeah, this is the mood, and it’s like the soundtrack for that.” So, I think that’s a very versatile and helpful one to have.

David Kadavy
And not even just soundtrack. I want to also talk about if you have control of your environment as well, especially with the quarantine, a lot more people working from home. If you have control over your environment, you can start to change certain things. I’ve got a standing-sitting desk that’s different for different mental states. I’ve got a hammock that I sometimes sit back and brainstorm in. I have a recliner with an overbed table that goes over the recliner. I sort of lay back and write in that recliner. So, you can change certain things.

When I first started on my own, I had a tiny bedroom in San Francisco, and that was where I worked, and that’s where I slept. I worked in cafes during the day but I was still working at night. And so, I didn’t want to confuse working with sleeping, and so I had a little shoji screen, a little room divider, that I would set up around my desk, and I would clip a lamp on there and bounced light in a certain way and a certain album I would listen to, I’d put a certain aromatherapy scent on, and that would trigger me to be ready to work.

Now, when it was time to sleep, I would go immediately from working to sleeping, I had a whole different set of things I did. I hid the desk behind the screen, I’d maybe put on a different scent, maybe put on a different music, and change my environment so that I could change my mental state.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. And so then, a good bit of this is that self-reflection in terms of last time you were in this groove, what was going on, what was the setup.

David Kadavy
And you could have a journal that you keep for this stuff too, and just kind of, at the end of the day, like observe, “When was the time that I felt really in congruence between what I was doing and the way that I felt? And when was the time when I didn’t?” And you’ll eventually start to find those patterns.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, David, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

David Kadavy
No, I think that we’ve covered a lot of cool stuff. I mean, I obviously have an entire book, it’s very dense. I’ve worked 10 years on this thing, so there’s a lot to tackle, way more than we could talk about in this conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Kadavy
Oh, I like this one from the investor, Naval Ravikant, who was an early investor in Uber and other different companies, and is a great philosopher sort of to follow on Twitter, “Earn with your mind, not with your time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

David Kadavy
I saw an interesting sort of meta-analysis recently in the neuroscience publication called Neuron, and it was about beliefs. And it was basically saying that we form beliefs not just to reduce uncertainty in our world, which is very important for moving through the world, to be able to quickly assess things. This is where biases come from. But that having a belief in itself is a reward. And so, they’ve noticed this through a number of different experiments that being able to hold a belief and confirm a belief actually looks like a reward in the brain. And so, this is sort of the idea of confirmation bias, the neural correlates of confirmation bias.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “See, I’m right.” Like, that feels good?

David Kadavy
Yeah. And it is critical to our sort of echo chamber world that we live in, but it’s also important to doing creative work, I think, it’s very relevant. So, if I’m somebody who’s like, “I believe, one day, I’m going to become a famous comedian,” that belief feels good. And they’ve even noticed that if you’re looking for a certain belief, your brain will change what it looks for to confirm that belief.

And so, if you believe you’re going to be a famous comedian someday, then you’re going to seek out information that’s going to confirm that belief, and you’re going to avoid information that would challenge that belief. So, information that might confirm that belief would be, “I’m going to go take another comedy class.” Information that would challenge that belief would be, “I’m going to get on stage and tell some jokes in front of people,” because, likely, you’re not going to get the laughs that you expect.

And so, this is a way that we kind of have what I call aspiration procrastination, which is what my previous book The Heart to Start was about, which is the situations where having this belief that this thing, you’re going to do this someday is such an enjoyable feeling that we put off doing anything that would challenge that belief. So, it’s really interesting to see the actual neuroscience behind that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

David Kadavy
I really enjoy the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Black Swan I think is a fantastic book.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

David Kadavy
Todoist. Great to-do app.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Kadavy
My 100 words on my AlphaSmart in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

David Kadavy
Well, the idea of mind management, not time management is something that people tend to respond to.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to get in touch, where would you point them?

David Kadavy
Twitter. I’m really active on Twitter. I know all the kids love Instagram these days, I know all the old people love Facebook these days, but Twitter is where I’m at @kadavy.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

David Kadavy
Yeah, final challenge is the next time that you have something to do, ask yourself, “What would be the ideal mental state for me to do this?” That’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, this has been a treat. Keep on rocking and we’ll see each other maybe in five years.

David Kadavy
I hope sooner than that but, yeah, Pete, it’s an honor. Your show is wonderful, so thank you.

616: How to Handle Work in a World Where Everything’s Urgent with Brandon Smith

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Brandon Smith says: "Don't let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can't be equal priority."

Brandon Smith shares how to cut through non-stop urgency and work on what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How urgency is just like hot sauce
  2. What your boss really means when they say everything’s urgent
  3. How to expertly say no to extra work

 

About Brandon

Brandon went from not being able to order a pizza due to a debilitating stutter to becoming a master communicator. 

He went on to teach communication in two leading business schools and has won 12 teaching awards for his work in the classroom. 

Through his work with businesses, Brandon has helped countless employees go from being on the verge of getting fired to becoming some of the company’s top performers. 

Brandon learnt the secret of urgency, what he calls ‘Hot Sauce’ and how different people react differently to it. Today he is the author of The Hot Sauce Principle. 

Used in the right amount, hot sauce can be the very thing that turns a bland or stressful workplace into a place of flavorful productivity. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Rise.com. Build your team’s learning library–the fast and fun way–with Rise.com/awesome 
  • Blinkist. Learn more, faster with book summaries you can read or listen to in 15 minutes at blinkist.com/awesome 

Brandon Smith Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brandon, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brandon Smith
Pete, really excited to be on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I was just telling you off the recording that your subtitle is so good. Your book is called The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

Brandon Smith
Everything is urgent all of the time, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re speaking to my experience and the exhaustion associated with that. But I want to sort of go back in time a little bit. So, you were not always a master communicator. There was a time, I’m told, that you had quite the stutter and were nervous about ordering pizza. What’s the story of the transformation here?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, let me tell you a little bit of the story. I don’t know if I can answer the transformation part as well but I can at least tell you part of the story. So, I was the youngest of three boys, I had two older brothers, both were adopted, and my oldest brother was always in and out of trouble, so creating a lot of drama and dysfunction in my house, throwing up.

Well, when I was 10, he took his own life. And during that time, it was a really kind of transformative period for myself and my family. It was a hard time. And I ended up, I don’t know why, but I ended up coming down with a stutter about six months after he died, and I couldn’t shake it, and that was going into middle school, which I do not recommend.

So, every day, before middle school, I would have to go and see my speech therapist early in the morning and we’d work on the letters that always tripped me up, which were the Bs and the Ps and the Ts, so then I would work on those and then go on to the school day. And so, yeah, during my entire middle school career, if you were to call it that, things that involved those letters were really tricky for me. I would find any way to avoid that.

But when you’re ordering a pepperoni pizza, there’s just no escaping. You can’t say, “Can you put those little things on there? What are they called again?” so, then, ordering the pepperoni pizza, that would never really end. I would just get caught in that stutter. And I just decided that people were just kind of messy and dysfunctional, because growing up with my brother, and then the way kids with stutters were treated in school, I thought, “Man, people are messed so I’m just going to keep distance from them.”

And that was kind of my high school years. Really kind of made myself kind of a wallflower, an introvert, and then went off to college, didn’t really know what I wanted to major in, ended up majoring in communications, ironically enough. And then, at some point along the way, my stutter kind of shook free, I suppose. However, I can tell you, when I get really, really tired, or really, really stressed out and tired, it comes back a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, what a story, and I’m sorry to hear about that difficult moment but it’s reassuring to hear that you, ultimately, triumphed and, here we are, benefitting from your wisdom.

Brandon Smith
I’m working on it, Pete. I wouldn’t say triumphed. So, I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you sound great, and you’ve got something important to say, and I’m excited to hear about it. So, first, The Hot Sauce Principle, why don’t you just define that? What’s the big idea there? And where does this term come from?

Brandon Smith
Yeah, you know, the big idea, what I was finding, so I wear lots of hats in the world. One of my hats is I’m an executive coach. Another hat, I teach at universities and business schools. And I was just finding that a lot of the people I was interacting with in the workplace, didn’t matter what kind of job they had, didn’t matter whether they were nonprofit, for profit, big, small, work in the United States, work internationally, two things were true. Time was everyone’s precious resource. Not money, it was time. And everything was urgent all the time.

And that urgency was like hot sauce. One day it just kind of hit me. It’s like just being hot sauce just poured on everything. And while I love that concept of hot sauce for urgency for lots of reasons, one, I like it because a little bit of hot sauce is actually kind of a good thing. I like hot sauce. It adds focus, it adds flavor, makes things a priority. But you put that stuff on everything, if you’re like me, you’re just going to be drenched in sweat, curled up in a ball, and not really able to function. And some people can tolerate a lot of this stuff, and some people can’t tolerate much at all.

So, it’s a nice, simple way of thinking about how we deal with urgency, and that sometimes it’s a good thing. But too much of anything, particularly urgency, is like hot sauce. It just overwhelms us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you mentioned some people can handle a little, and some people can handle a lot. That reminds me of there is this like local comedian who was making a joke about how some people who are really into their hot sauce will sort of demean others, it’s just like, “Oh, you probably can’t handle this.” It’s like, “You’re belittling me for having a tongue that works properly.” Like, where else has this happened with regard to, “Oh, man, you probably don’t need glasses, but I need huge glasses”?

So, we’re going to dig into that, I’m sure, in terms of just how much you can handle and how much is optimal. And so then, tell us then, what would you say is sort of the most surprising or fascinating discovery that came about when you were putting together this research associated with urgency and what we do about it?

Brandon Smith
I think there’s probably a couple things that really are big highlights that are important for us to think about. First, urgency is a good thing. So, if we kind of flip into another part of the workplace world, all the experts in change management, one of the more famous ones is a guy by the name of John Kotter who teaches at Harvard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had him on the show.

Brandon Smith
Oh, you had him on the show?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Brandon Smith
Okay. Well, then you know John well. Well, John is famous for change management. And when you look at a lot of the concepts he brings, in his frameworks, he says, “You know what, if you want to turn out a change, the first place you got to start is urgency. There has to be a high-enough sense of urgency.” So, urgency is really important when we’re trying to change.

My kids always joke with me because every year, about a month out, six weeks out to a month out from my annual physical, I will start really doubling down on exercise and health. And they’re like, “Oh, here comes dad’s physical again.” But it’s that urgency. I want to show up really good for the physical. It creates urgency. It gets us to change.

So, I think one big takeaway is that urgency is a really good thing. It’s a healthy thing. We need it. As one client told me many years ago, she said, “I know I need to light a fire in my people, but sometimes I need to light a fire under them too.” So, we don’t want to cut out hot sauce, but the problem is when we, as leaders, just think everything is urgent and we make our emotions, our anxiety, other people’s problems. It’s kind of like kick the dog syndrome.

There’s a whole new set of research studying emotions in the workplace, they’re called emotional contagion. And one of the big takeaways in that research is that anxiety is one of the more contagious forms of emotions. It’s super contagious. So, we want to make sure that we’re not making other people feel that pain. That’s a really, really bad thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Brandon, you know, that rings true in my experience in terms of anxiety. I just pick up on it. It’s just like, “Aargh.”

Brandon Smith
And you think of the year we’re in, it’s really easy for a leader to be really anxious about a lot of things. Anxious about uncertainty, about where the business is going, anxious about their family or the health, so are all our employees. They’re all anxious too. So, sometimes we actually need to be the calm in the storm. We’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to show calm today, or peaceful today, so I don’t freak everybody else out and they can focus and do their job.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m with you. So, urgency, it’s not bad, we need some of it, especially in order to make a change. If you don’t got it, it’s probably not going to happen. And so, at the same time though, hey, we’re in a global worldwide disease pandemic at the moment with COVID-19, as we speak. Hopefully, people will be listening to this, years from now, and say, “Oh, I remember that. That was a difficult time. I’m so glad it’s such a distant memory now.” But, in addition to that, you say that professionals these days are in an urgency epidemic. What do you mean by that? And what are the consequences of it?

Brandon Smith
So, the urgency epidemic is when other people put their urgency on us, on you. They make their problems your problem. Notorious for this would be like large publicly-traded companies. So, shareholders and everyone else putting so much pressure on them, so what most C-level leaders do in this company, I hate to say, is they just tell all their direct reports, “All this stuff is urgent. We have to change it all right now. All of it now.”

And I was actually sitting in a meeting a few years ago with a senior leader who said this to the room, and one of his direct reports raised their hand and said, “Well, I totally get that, boss. I totally understand that but help us to prioritize. So, what’s the priority? What’s the order here?” And he looked at him and he said, “All of them are urgent right now equally.” And you can feel the room just deflate.

So, the real epidemic is everything being urgent all the time and having that pressure being pushed down on us. So, it’s kind of like rather than running a marathon where you say, “Okay, I’m going to be done at 26.2 miles,” it’s like run until you drop. Because we can sprint, we can do urgency for a little while, but the school of thought is it needs to be more like interval training. Like, you sprint, you get a little rest, you sprint, you get a little rest. Not just run until you drop.

And so, that’s what the real urgency epidemic costs us. It costs us exhaustion, burnout, and performance, and lots of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, this is very much ringing true. Oh, there’s so much I want to dig into there. First, okay, maybe this is a quick one, with intervals, there’s all sorts of different interval timers. I’ve got so many apps on my phone and different recommendations for four minutes on, one minute off. Do you have a sense for what is “optimal interval”? If we really want to make some stuff happen, and we also want to not burn out, what’s kind of the range of, hey, sprinting versus chilling ratio?

Brandon Smith
Oh, man, yeah. Pete, this is tough. I hate to give that, like, classic business school answer, “It depends,” but it really totally does depend. So, for example, let’s say we were a software company, and we did a product release. Well, the natural time to do interval for rest would be right after the launch of a new product. So, if you’re in that kind of a world where you have a beginning, middle, and end of something, then you want to take the break at the end.

There was a company out in Silicon Valley a couple of years ago that tested this idea. And they would launch a new product every quarter, and at the end of every quarter, they’d shut down their business for a full week so everybody could rest, so nobody worked that week. So, at the end of the year, they were actually only working 11 months out of the 12 months because of one week off every quarter. That first year they did it, they had a higher productivity and higher performance and higher revenue than the year before.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. So, working fewer total days.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, fewer total days. If you look at another example of that, you might say like in the quick-service restaurant world, Chick-fil-A is number one in revenue per store, and they are only open six days a week, and they don’t have the late-night hours, like McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Taco Bell or any of the other players might have. So, that’s an example of interval training. They found a way to make that work in their rhythm. They did one day off a week.

So, I think it really depends upon the business but the notion is really important. So, I think almost a better way to think about it is if you’re a leader or a manager, how can you give your folks a break between sprints so they get a moment to catch their breaths? And what are some creative ways you can do it that kind of work for your world?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, can you give us one or two or three creative ways right off the top of your head?

Brandon Smith
So, one would naturally be trying to find an extra day off a week, or working from home. So, there are many uncomfortable things and not pleasant things that came from 2020, but there are some positives. One positive is a lot of employers realized people can work from home. And then, as a huge not only morale boost and perk, but it impacts motivation if used in the right doses in a positive way.

So, allowing people the opportunity to work from home is probably going to be more like our new normal. My guess is, if we look out in the crystal ball, we’re going to see people coming into the office one, two, maybe three days a week, and then working from home the other days of the week. So, that’s an example of interval training, giving people a little more space to get things done.

Another example would be thinking about times and opportunities where you can close and turn off the whole business. So, what makes this tricky is if you’re going to give someone a break, you got to make sure people aren’t pinging them during the break. Like, I could tell you, “Pete, take this day off.” But if customers are still calling you and they didn’t get the memo, it’s not really a day off. So, boundary is really important.

Part of my background is I’m a trained clinical therapist, and any therapist, one of their passion areas is boundaries, and to really do this thing well, interval training and intervals, and protecting ourselves from urgency, we’ve got to know how to set boundaries, know how to communicate that and say no when necessary.

So, I’ll give you one more, a quick one. This is a personal tip that you could use. Everyone listening to this can use this. I started doing it this year. Really easy. I stopped emailing people on the weekends. Period. Now, it didn’t mean I didn’t do work. So, Microsoft Outlook is the tool I use. They have a function, like a lot of emailing software tools, where you can schedule emails.

So, what I did was I would still do my work but I would schedule all my emails to go out on Monday morning when people were actually supposed to be at work or working. And what I found. when I did that, was I wasn’t getting any emails on the weekend. Because, before when I would send an email, there would always be that super hardworking ambitious person at the other end that would kick the email back with a response. And then I would respond, and then they would respond, and now we’re playing an email tennis match on Saturday afternoon.

Well, I’m not playing email tennis matches anymore, and so it allowed me to really get ahead of the week and not feel that kind of pace and urgency. So, that’s a simple kind of interval training that we can all put into our lives. And if you’re a manager, I would encourage you to tell your team that you’re doing that so they don’t send you emails on the weekend either.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay, cool. Well, so already so many great takeaways there in terms of we’ve got to have some rest, and you could think about creative ways to do that. Shut down the whole business, or the whole team, or have particular days off, and so there’s a rhythmic groove that you’re in, and establishing a boundary, showing it to others so that they follow up. So much good stuff here.

I guess I also want to get your take on it is really frustrating when someone says, “All of these are urgent. Right now. And equally so.” Now, in my opinion, I want to get your take on this, one, I think when someone communicates that, it’s really just laziness and that they haven’t actually done the work to determine what is, in fact, the most urgent and/or important yet. That’s my hot take. What are your thoughts? Does that jive with what you believe as well? Or, how do you see what’s behind that message?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. Well, I agree with you completely. I would say when we live in a world where times are our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, it will default us to become firefighters. We’re not leaders. It doesn’t matter people’s title. Most people right now, “most leaders” are firefighters. And so, when you’re a fighter, you’re in a reactive posture.

So, what you’re saying is rather than being a proactive posture and really prioritize and sit down and plan, you’re just reacting to the stuff that’s burning that day, and then you’re putting that on other people. So, I agree completely. It’s trying to get them to shift that behavior, which is one of the many antidotes you can do when you’re getting someone trying to push that on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then, lay it on us, if you think everything is urgent, and whether it means you haven’t done the thinking through to determine what’s truly more urgent, how do you recommend we go about thinking through that, and then arriving at some optimal decisions regarding the urgency of things?

Brandon Smith
So, to help with this, for everyone listening who has a boss, I no longer want you think of your boss as your boss. From now on, I want you to think of your boss as your number one customer or client because they really are. I mean, they are. They can decide to renew your contract or end your contract. So, when we do that, it, all of a sudden, turns on a whole bunch of other tools and competencies that we have around client management because, really, what we’re talking about is client management.

We want to sit down and say, “Miss or Mr. Client,” or boss, “I totally understand that you want to get all these things done. Unfortunately, we have limited resources. So, we have a couple options. One option is I would love to talk to you about the order in which we need to take these on and the importance of each so I can try to meet your needs with what we have. The other option is we can get more resources, so maybe we can find more people to get this done, or hire, or get better software, or wherever else we can invest. So, which path would you like to go down?” Essentially, it’s client management, and you’re forcing them to either trade off or offer more resources.

That’s also a boundary conversation. If you don’t do that, and you just say, “Yes, I’m going to get this done,” then what you’re sacrificing is yourself and your team because you’ll end up needing to work till 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning in order to get it all done if there isn’t enough resources, there isn’t enough time. So, you have to have the courage to also be willing to stand up for yourself and for your team to not sacrifice yourself in the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds me, is it called the project management trio, in terms of like the scope and the resources and the timing, and there’s sort of like a triangle there? And it’s like one of them has got to shift. And I think scope can also maybe include quality. We could do a lot of stuff poorly or we can do a few things really well given how much time and how many people we have available to do those things, and to just get very real about that.

And so, I guess I’m curious, there’s all sorts of data suggesting that we human beings do a poor job of estimating how long things take. How do you recommend we get a clear handle on, yeah, this is really what is a manageable amount for us to bite off right now versus not too much?

Brandon Smith
Oh, this is a tricky one. Now, the simple answer is time and wisdom helps to cure a lot of those ills. We just learn over time that, “Oh, yeah, I estimated I was going to take 10 hours. It turns out it took 40. That was not a good decision.” Like, I have not stained my deck myself in many years. Last time I did it, it took me 40 hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Brandon Smith
I enjoyed doing it but it took me 40 hours. The next year, I hired a crew. It was like 300 bucks and they did it in like four hours. I will never stain my deck again. So, I think part of it is we learn over time. But the other part of this, too, is it’s really important that, as best we can, we try and under-promise and overdeliver when it comes to things like this. Because when we don’t make a gunline that we promised, we lose credibility. And when we lose credibility, it’s in the book, it’s part of a trust formula that I offer, we need to have trust in order to effectively push back on our manager. If she or he doesn’t fully trust us, or we don’t have that credibility, it’s going to be hard for us to push back. They’re not going to listen to us.

So, part of the way, one of the many ways we gain credibility is by kind of meeting and exceeding expectations on a regular basis. And so, it’s all about kind of managing those expectations. So, for example, I could tell my wife I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock. If I come home at 7:30, she’s going to be mad. If I tell her I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock, and I come home at 5:30, she’s going to be happy. So, it’s just kind of managing that. So, trying to think how we can do that is going to be key.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that really rings true with regard to with the trust. If you try to push back, and there’s low trust, the boss may very well say, “Nah, it’s not that much. You can handle it.” As opposed to, “Oh, no, I really do believe that you’re giving me your honest, genuine assessment of how long things take as opposed to like you’re sandbagging me because you’re lazy,” or something. So, that’s huge. And then under-promise and overdeliver, that’s excellent.

Let’s zoom into kind of the emotional difficulty associated with putting forward a smaller commitment maybe than you think they want, or saying no, or establishing or enforcing a boundary. All these things can be a little bit uncomfortable in terms of that. And I just sort of, this is my personal trick, I remember when I was an employee, and someone asked me, “Hey, when do you think you can have that done?” I just sort of reoriented that question in my brain not to mean, “When do I really think I can have it done?” to, “What is the latest data I can tell you just before you’re going to become irritated with me?”

Brandon Smith
That’s fair.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s kind of how I tried to play it. And sometimes they push back, and I’d be like, “Yeah, I think I could definitely have that by next Tuesday,” and I meant it. I definitely could because I could probably have it three days before that. And then they’d say, “Hmm, yeah, about Friday?” Then I would just sort of say something like, “Yeah, that’s more challenging but I still think that’s doable.” And then, in that way, it’s like, hey, I was never lying, I was never deceptive, I just said, “I could definitely have it done by then,” because I had a great deal of confidence that I had some bugger to schedule. And frequently they just took it, like, “All right. It sounds cool. We’ll do it then.” So, that was my little trick.

Brandon Smith
No, that’s great. It’s managing their expectations. That’s beautiful. That’s perfect.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s one for me. Let’s hear, Brandon, what are some of your faves?

Brandon Smith
In terms of managing some of those expectations?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, managing expectations, saying no when forcing a boundary, when inside, want to people-please and accommodate.

Brandon Smith
So, let’s go back to like saying no. Saying no is difficult because it’s a vulnerable position we put ourselves in. We don’t like vulnerability because what are they going to do to us when we say no? Are they going to reject us? Are they going to get angry with us? What are they going to do? So, we just say, “Well, the path to least resistance is I say yes and just kind of keep on piling and piling and piling.”

Now, that story ends up always ending the same. We have so much on our plate that we end up missing expectations and starting to disappoint others because you can’t just keep piling and piling and piling. So, there are a couple ways that we can say no that will make it a little less emotional for us and easier. So, one very helpful tip is when you’re saying no, that conversation should be 20% no, 80% alternate solutions to solve their problem.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Brandon Smith
Where we go wrong is we spend all the time, like, you asked me to do something, Pete, and I’d say like, “No, Pete, I can’t. Here’s all the reasons why,” and I go through all my list of reasons. You’re not listening to my list of reasons anymore. You don’t really care. You didn’t like the fact I said no. And what I’ve inadvertently done is I’ve set up a negotiation. So, what you’re going to say to yourself is, “Well, if I can counter his argument, then he has to do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. It’s like, “Oh, well, if you could do this, we’d do that. Give it someone else.” And it’s like, “I didn’t mean to invite you into a micro assessment of the rest of my obligations and, yet, here we are.”

Brandon Smith
And that’s what happens. We end up inadvertently turning it into a negotiation. And so, what you want to do is quickly and very succinctly say, “No, I don’t have the capacity to do this, but I want to help you solve this problem. So, I’ve come up with some other alternate solutions to maybe get this problem solved. Let’s work through some of these to find another solution that will get this completed.”

So, you can suggest colleagues perhaps, you can suggest external resources, you can suggest moving things around. So, there are other options that you can lay out at the table. But, in a perfect world, all the other options should not involve you, so you’re kind of going into problem-solving.

Now, the other thing you can also do in terms of saying no is giving people a little more transparency into all the trains running on your tracks. So, often when people load up, even your own boss, your own manager, they probably have forgotten and are unaware of all the stuff you’re doing. So, giving them that window can be helpful.

I had a student of mine years ago, and she did an internship in New York in investment banking. And during that internship, she had multiple managing directors in that office, and they were notorious for coming up to her and giving her big projects. So, one day, one of them came up and gave her a project after his colleague had given her a project the day before. And she looked at him, she said, “I’m happy to do this for you. But in order for me to do this for you, I need to go to your colleague, the other managing director, and I need to tell them I can’t do their project that they gave me yesterday because I’m doing yours instead. Are you comfortable if I have that discussion?” And they looked at her, and they said, “Never mind.”

So, sometimes, showing people what you have going on, and letting them know who you’re going to have to tell no to in order to tell them yes can also re-shift the focus because, now, we’re going into politics and, all of a sudden, this person could put them self in a political limb that they didn’t realize because now you’re going to tell their boss no so you can do their project, or whoever that person may be.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I like that so much because it’s honest, it’s real, it’s genuine. And then, sometimes, the person you’re communicating would be like, “Oh, not a problem. Happy to do that.” And then you learn something from that, it’s like, “Oh, huh, funny. Because from the outside looking in, it had seemed like those two projects were of equal importance but, apparently, one of them is way higher, and I didn’t even know that.” And by having had that conversation and learned that, you’re gaining some of that wisdom, that kind of say, “Oh, okay, this is what’s really important here and what is most valued in this team or organization.”

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, if we go back to one of our bigger meta-principles today, it was about forcing prioritization. Don’t let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can’t be equal priority. That’s when we get overwhelmed and burned out. In a very kind of geeky way, we need to be lining stuff up in a process kind of way, and say, “Okay, where do I start with first? What’s first priority, and second, and third?”

And, by the way, the leaders and the companies that have really done the best job of keeping everybody focused and aligned during this whole time in 2020 have had anywhere between three and no more than five priorities. They’ve been operating off of a very set list of three to five. They haven’t made everything urgent all the time. They said, “No, these are our big things we’re going to focus on. Everybody, line up around these,” and it calms people’s anxiety, it gets people focused, it’s like just that right amount of hot sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, yes, that three to five is great. The forced prioritization is powerful. One way is to just say, “Hey, I could do that, but in order to do that, I’m going to have to drop this.” And so, you share sort of the constraints. What are some of your other favorite ways of forcing a prioritization?

Brandon Smith
So, when you’re thinking about going to your boss, it helps when you bring a menu. So, rather than say, “What do you want me to do?” we want to be a little more on the author seat and we want to bring them a menu, and say, “I’ve got three different options for you today. Which one of these would you like to go down? Which path?” So, that’s another way that we can force prioritization is by offering options. You’ll learn a lot from people based on what they choose off that menu.

So, a common example is, like, I always feel bad for the creative types in the world because they routinely get customers that say, “You know, I don’t know what I want but I’ll know when I see it.” It’s kind of like forces you to do just do all this guessing. But then if you bring them three options, say, “Well, which one of these do you like better?” People always react to a menu. So, spending that little extra effort in creating a menu will also teach you a lot. You’ll learn a lot about what the incentives and motives are, and it’ll help you kind of know what path you want to go down.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. When I’m a manager, I like that as well in terms of that’s sort of something I ask people to do, is, “Okay. Hey, each day, send me a quick email on what you did today and what you plan to do tomorrow.” And then that really helps me because, one, I could say, “Oh, huh, no need to do that. Let’s do this instead.” So, I get the heads up so I can redirect as necessary.

And it helps me get a sense of, well, what are their preferences, their strengths, their desires, what would they naturally kind of flow to, as well as their judgment in terms of, it’s like, “Oh, you seem to be under the impression that that is really very important/urgent to me, and it’s not.” So, we can have that conversation, and say, “Hey, actually, we’re totally all set on that front for a couple months, so we can go over here.” They’re like, “Oh, okay, great. Didn’t know. Thank you.” So, I like that, the menu. Very good.

Brandon Smith
So, that made me think of something, another tip. So, we’re spending our time with tips as kind of the employee kind of dealing with the manager. But there are tips about being a more effective manager in this stuff. So, I’ll tell you my favorite example that came from a client. So, I was talking about this idea of urgency and hot sauce. He had a small technology company, about 50 employees, an anxious guy as it is, and so he was just bringing that anxiety into work every day. I mean, everybody was just so wound tight because he was so wound tight.

So, I shared this idea of hot sauce and urgency, and gave him one of my little bottles. I buy these little Tabasco bottles in bulk and hand it out to people. And so, he went out to the grocery store and he bought three bottles of hot sauce, stuck them on his desk. Bang! Bang! Bang! And every time he had an initiative or project that was urgent, when he assigned that project, he would hand that owner of the project a bottle of hot sauce to hold onto until the project was done.

And why that was such a great, really great tip and technique that he did is because he only had three bottles to give out. So, once all the bottles were given out, that’s it. He can’t make anything else urgent until someone gives a bottle back. So, thinking of forcing mechanisms like that that you can do is also another way for you to manage the flow of hot sauce on your teams.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Well, Brandon, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Brandon Smith
The only other thing that I would say is also important when we think about hot sauce is just, as managers and leaders, just being intentional, what really is important and making sure we’re communicating that. One of the interesting little missteps I find with senior leaders when we talk about things like executive presence, one of the more common missteps that people don’t realize they’re doing is they talk out loud a lot or they think out loud a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, to their teams.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, to their teams. And they’re just thinking out loud, but their teams are interpreting that as an urgent priority, and they go off and start doing work. And they bring them back a PowerPoint deck the next day or recommendations or something else, and the manager looks at them and says, “I was just kind of just talking. I didn’t really want you to do anything.” So, just being really intentional about what you’re asking folks to do is an important takeaway too for managers so you can keep everybody focused and aligned and just that right amount of urgency.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brandon Smith
One of the ones I actually mentioned a couple times this week, they attribute it to Mark Twain but I don’t think anyone really knows who said it, but it goes like this, “I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have enough time.” I love that quote. Because it emphasizes how hard it is to get to finish thinking, how hard it is to have that very concise, like, “This is what I want.” And when time is our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, we tend to kind of dump our thinking on people. So, that’s my favorite quote for at least this week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brandon Smith
Probably the one that is jumping out for me right now is about three or four years ago, a group of researchers studied this question, “What’s the worst kind of boss to work for?” And I thought they would’ve come back with the angry, yelling, and screaming boss, that wasn’t number one. Micromanager wasn’t number one. Ghosting boss wasn’t number one. The worst kind of boss to work for? The highly-inconsistent boss or like the unmedicated bipolar boss, because you never knew what you were going to get on a given day.

So, I thought that was really fascinating because it really speaks to the importance of consistency because anxiety at work comes from a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a contagious emotion. So, we can prevent a lot of that if we’re consistent and predictable. So, that’s one of my favorite pieces of research that’s come out in the last few years.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

Brandon Smith
One recently that I’ve continued to go back to is Daring Greatly from Brené Brown. So, she’s got a whole bunch of books kind of all in the same genre and theme, but I like the study and depth around vulnerability. It’s so important to us building relationships, and even us being more effective as leaders. So, I continue to find myself going back to that one.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Brandon Smith
If I think of a simple one that everyone can do, scheduling your emails. Simple tool. Simple-simple, so powerful, saves you so much time, saves you so much anxiety.

Now, I would say, in more recent years, the ability to learn how to hand things off to others who are better at it than you is a kind of tool. And I found it’s gotten me happier, gave me more leverage, and really allowed me to do the stuff that only I can do. So, I’m a big believer in finding ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Brandon Smith
Exercise. I’ve always enjoyed exercise and working out, but I’ve been really doubling down on that the last month, so I’ve been finding it’s been yielding a lot of results maybe that’s because I just had my annual physical.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, right.

Brandon Smith
We’re coming full circle, but that’s one that I think is really, really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share with folks that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, and they repeat it back to you frequently?

Brandon Smith
Simple nugget, going to be something I’m going to be writing about in the future is distinction between being an author and editor, and we’ve touched on it a little bit today. But in every dynamic between a manager and a direct report, there’s always someone who sits in the author seat and someone who sits in the editor seat. And knowing what seat to sit in is key.

So, as the manager or leader, you want to spend the majority of your time in the editor seat, which makes a lot of sense when you think about your great all-time direct reports. They would come to you and say, “Hey, Pete, there’s a problem. Here’s what I think we should do about it. I’d love to get your thoughts.” They’re offering a solution for you to edit.

But where we get stuck sometimes, or tricked sometimes, is we’ll have a direct report say, “What do you want me to do?” And what they’re doing is they’re baiting you into authoring so they can sit back and edit. They can say, “Well, it’s not my fault it didn’t work out. He told me to do it that way.” So, making sure that we’re sitting in that editor seat as a leader is really important. It’ll save us time, and it’ll make our teams better because it promotes ownership, initiative, and critical thinking with them.

And then with our boss, we want to make sure we’re sitting in the author seat. Bring them ideas, bring them a point of view, and recommendations that they can react to, which again goes back to some of our comments earlier around how to more effectively manage our boss.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Brandon Smith
It’s very simple. You can Google “The Workplace Therapist.” That’s my handle and I’m the only one. So, you can go to TheWorkplaceTherapist.com. That’s where my blog is, podcasts, where you can get a copy of my book. Of course, it’s also available on Amazon and other places where you might purchase a book. And, again, the title of the book is The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Brandon Smith
I think, particularly right now in 2020, I would say there’s two. First, make sure you’re setting healthy boundaries because while people have been working at home and from home, we’re seeing a lot of boundary creep. So, making sure you’re setting healthy boundaries and communicating that. That’s really, really important.

The second thing that I would add, too, is making sure you’re finding ways to remind your boss and other leaders of the value that you’re providing. We’re not always visible, we’re not in front of them every day, and no one likes to self-promote but, at the same time, we’re going to need to make sure that our boss does recognize the value that we’re bringing so we don’t get passed over for that promotion or we don’t get looked over for new opportunities. So, those would be two tips to particularly apply today.

Pete Mockaitis
Brandon, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the things that have hot sauce on them.

Brandon Smith
Thank you. Really enjoyed coming on the show. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the great questions. I really enjoyed it.

615: How to Build Laser Focus in an Age of Endless Distractions with Curt Steinhorst

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Curt Steinhorst says: "Distraction at its core is confusion about what matters."

Curt Steinhorst reveals why we often struggle to take control of our attention—and what we can do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Surprising statistics that illustrate our level of distraction 
  2. The essential keys to accessing flow state
  3. How to improve your focus in three steps 

About Curt

Curt Steinhorst is the author of the bestselling book Can I Have Your Attention?, an expert on focus and distraction, and a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. 

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges in keeping the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. Through Focuswise, the company Curt founded to help teams solve the problem of chronic distraction, Curt and his team apply the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s world. 

He coaches founders and CEOs of multi-billion-dollar brands on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers. His worldwide speeches and training have helped thousands gain the wisdom and practical habits to better manage their focus and put it on the things that really matter in life and work. Clients include Southwest Airlines, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, NIKE, and SAP, just to name a few. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Hydrant. Hydrate all the more effectively, efficiently, and deliciously! Listeners save 25% at drinkhydrant.com/awesome. 

     

Curt Steinhorst Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m excited to be here, Pete. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and much of it is captured in your book Can I Have Your Attention? But, I understand, when it comes to you reading books, you love fantasy novels. What’s the story here?

Curt Steinhorst
I’m a nerd, really. No. So, I have always enjoyed this weird genre that is fantasy novels, and then Game of Thrones came out and revealed to the rest of the world that it’s not all Bilbo Baggins. Honestly, I have this part of my world where I work really hard, and then focus on the research, and what’s happening in trends in the markets, and workplace trends. And then I have this other side where I want to turn off my brain, and I want to just think about a world that’s not here. And so, fantasy novels are really awesome for that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then, tell me, what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel per se? And what do you think is, like, the core stuff of it that makes it so engaging for folks, such that some of them are like 12-plus books deep in a series, and folks read them all cover to cover, front to getting to the end? What is it that glues people like yourself?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think it’s the same thing, I think, that makes anyone love any great story. And, officially, fantasy novels take place more in the medieval times where there’s swords and then there’s some form of magic, which sounds super nerdy. My wife thinks that I’m crazy to love it. But what makes them powerful is really great characters that have complex challenges.

And it turns out, when you release some of the great creatives in the world to not have to be constrained by the same parameters that are our world is constrained by, what you find is that people are really, really great at imagining things that are fascinating, and interesting, and make you think you enjoy the story just like you would any great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is cool. And I think that I am thinking about sort of the hero’s journey stuff, it really seems like that is just…like, fantasy just plays into that dead-on it seems, but from my limited experience.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s funny. If you’re looking for something that’s fun and that is a healthy escape, they’re really just incredible stories. So, I didn’t know I was going to promote fantasy novels, but there are some great ones out there. The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, these are just some of the best novels out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a few people know that the very first guest on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, Mawi Asgedom, he’s famous for a lot of sort of social and emotional skills development and communication things, but he also wrote a fantasy novel for The Fifth Harmony, The Third Harmony? oh, don’t tell him.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m going to have to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, anyway, we’re talking about how fantasy novels have done an amazing job of capturing people’s attention for long stretches, but I understand that the world of focus and attention, here and now, Curt, isn’t so rosy. We are besieged by distraction. Can you paint a picture for just how bad it is right now?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, there’s two levels of bad news on this front. And one is what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade, which is this assault on our attention in, literally, endless ways. So, on average, you have 4,000 to 7,000 advertisements put in front of your face every single day, and $375 billion will be spent to get your attention. And, of course, there’s no safe place because the technology, it allows us to go anywhere and be reached.

And so, we get a lot of stuff for free, which is exciting, at Facebook and Yelp! and Google. And then we fail to realize that they’re actually charging us, and they’re charging us and our attention. And so, the challenge is that it doesn’t stay with us just when we’re at home or at any place. It really comes into work, and we end up in a situation where the volume of messages coming at us, the number of meetings that we’re expected to attend, the people outside of work who can reach us, put us in a place where we’re going back and checking our phones 150 times a day.

We, on average, stay on the same screen for 40 seconds at a time when at work. And if you have Slack or you have Microsoft Teams on a second screen, that number goes down to 35 seconds. So, needless to say, we’re really, really good at flipping based on all that’s coming at us. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that will keep us from being able to do what we need to do to be able to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, I love you dropped those numbers. It shows you’re a man who’s done your research, and that’s why we hunted you down. So, I’m excited to dig into all the more goodness here. So, that’s striking, 4,000 to 7,000 advertising messages every day, 150 times a day phone picks up, and 40 seconds average time. Yeah, that paints a picture in terms of attention and focus being scattered all over the place. And it’s tough.

I remember, so right now, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is pretty hot, and I enjoyed it. I think there are some good truths to be gleaned from it. So, the term that really struck me is that we refer to our phone as a digital pacifier that we pick up whenever we’re the slightest bit uncomfortable, like, “I’m a little bored.” And that kind of spooked me a bit, like, “Ugh, I guess I kind of do do that. And I’d like to…” Do-do, pacifiers. I’ve got toddlers.

So, what’s the consequence of this? It’s a lot. A lot of phone pickups, a lot of advertising messages, a very short window in which we’re kind of looking at our screen, but is that fine, Curt? Is that, “Hey, man, life in 2020”?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And The Social Dilemma did do a really great job of exposing some of the challenges, specifically, the adversarial technology, meaning technology that has different interests than we have, can have on us individually, and even deeper on society. I think the core challenge that we face, and there’s all sorts of quantifiable ways at work that we can show, the financial implications, the engagement implications, the tendency that people have to do less work and feel more overwhelmed.

But I think the core challenge, and what I really appreciated about The Social Dilemma is it spotlighted that we are losing control of what actually shapes and defines every single thing about our future, which is what gets our attention, what keeps our attention, how do we take control of our attention. And so, I think that’s the core consequence because you lose control of your own attention, and you lose control of everything.

Pete Mockaitis
You lose control of your attention; you lose control of everything. Yeah, I buy that, because instead of getting the results and outcomes that you really want and care about are important too, which would come from dedicated devotion of your attention to those pursuits, you sort of get whatever the algorithms have determined you should care about, and you get hooked into.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. The analogy that I would use is that we are in an ocean which has become a perfect storm. The pandemic, of course, just added an entirely new dimension, and we’re not going to be able to get out of that. And I think, so often, what we see when people immediately hear, “Oh, you think about focus and attention and distraction. Oh, I feel bad. I’m on my device when I shouldn’t be.” And it’s like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology, being distracted isn’t being on your phone.

In fact, I was walking through an airport, and someone had heard me speak, and they walked up. I was texting my wife while walking to the gate, and they said, “Hey, aren’t you the distraction expert? Caught you. You’re distracted.” I was like, “You nailed it. I am distracted by you. You are distracting me.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, I was crafting a beautiful note to my bride.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, exactly. So, distraction at its core is confusion about what matters. And we’re living in a world where we’re increasingly confused because there are so many things screaming “This matters.” And so, we end up like a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean with no control rather than having the toolset to navigate within the world we live in to still assert control and, therefore, have the ability to get to a particular place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us, how do we pull that off? You zero in on four key elements that affect focus. Is that where we should start? Or how do you want to tee us up?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think the number one place to start is just by actually realizing that time is not your most valuable resource. Your most valuable resource is your attention. And so, I know that seems like, “Okay, we’ve already talked about that.” But how often do people really think about, “What’s getting our attention?” Like, when you woke up this morning, not, “What did you do?” Maybe you went on a jog. But it’s, “What did you think about?” Or maybe I’m optimistic, maybe you thought about your attention was, “I need to do a job,” but you didn’t do it.

So, it’s the thing that fascinates me at its core is like, “How do those decisions get made?” because I think where most people naturally go when they hear, “I’m distracted,” or they feel like they’re inefficient, they need to be more productive, which are downstream effects of being able to manage our own attention, being able to focus, is they go towards things, lifehacking tricks, that, for me at least, when I started this journey into the research over a decade ago, they worked great for me tomorrow but, at the time, they didn’t work at all. And it’s like, I just kept having perfect advice that I couldn’t execute on.

And so, the reasoning for that is because we actually don’t understand what human attention is for, and what we’re able to do and not do. And so, I would start by saying, like, “I’m going to value my attention and know that everything comes from that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, okay, so that point about those hacks, they work great for you tomorrow, by that do you mean you don’t yet have the fundamental core in place such that those can amplify your effectiveness, and it’s sort of like the cart-before-the-horse type situation?

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. We will seek quick tips which, by the way, are super helpful. They’re really important. I’m going to give several that I think are important. But we do it without really understanding, like, “What is it that’s driving underneath this? What is it that keeps me from actually doing those things?” So, there’s no strings, there’s no endless amounts of things that we can do. Bundle your email. Don’t check your email all the time. But people still do it. And I think the thing that I would say is, “Okay, so let’s change the equation to really understand, like, how I make decisions about my attention.”

And so, a couple huge mistakes. Number one, people don’t understand that their attention is always going to be driven by social influence, meaning other people, what they pay attention to. Like, I could be perfectly focused but if the person sitting next to me has different ambitions then I’m never going to get my work done. So, like, we have to say, “Okay, how do I change the equation in such that it doesn’t cost me more attention than I have when I’m trying to find ways to create more space so I can focus on what matters?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge. And, like, you really have to be in a pretty hardcore sense of isolation for those effects to not matter much. I think I’m just lying to myself, when it’s like, “No, no, no, this is my objective, and I’ve determined it, and this is the schedule. And, thus, this is what shall be.” But, in practice, no, my dear wife or advertiser or somebody needs something now, and here we are.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And maybe if I were to say it’s really simply, often the great suggestions and strategies that we try to incorporate, they cost us the very thing we have the least of. So, like, “I’m going to implement a new project management system. I’m going to change the way I do my morning every morning. I’m going to do a gratitude journal. I’m going to do all of these things.” But the reason that we can’t is because we’re tired, and it’s because we have a lot on our plates, and it’s because that takes work. So, it’s like, maybe let’s think about how we do this in a way that we can actually get it done with our attention in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s get right into the core then, and it might take a while but I think it’s well worth it. So, you’re pointing to something bigger than the tips, and the tricks, and the hacks, and the strategies, and the tactics, to kind of fundamentally how do we go about determining what gets our attention? And I guess, for many of us, the answer is probably like, “I don’t know/It’s not that clearly defined.” So, lay it on us, like, how do we do that? Like, what are the main maybe archetypes, or modes, or flavors by which this happens?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And this is where it gets really fun, and there’s a lot of different frameworks that we can use but I’ll use a really simple one. You have two systems of attention in your brain, and one system of attention is more based out of your right hemisphere, and we would call it bottom-up, or right hemisphere attention. It’s complex. This isn’t the same as right brain, left brain pseudo-science. Then there’s another system of attention that is more top-down is what it’s called, and it’s more based in the left hemisphere.

And so, the right hemisphere is the baseline system of attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Right now, there’s literally endless things that are screaming for your attention. Like, you could be paying attention to this podcast, you could be paying attention to the football game that’s on, whatever, you have endless options.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hot in here.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s hot. Exactly. And we flip. We’re constantly flipping. But most of it, it hits the right hemisphere first, and what you’re looking for is two things, “Is that thing going to kill me?” So, I am, primarily, like anytime, something is perceived as acutely threatening. Meaning, “Whatever that is could hurt me, I will focus on it,” and that’s when it flips into the other hemisphere, and we give nothing else our attention. Everything else disappears.

And so, the first thing is pain, fear, anxiety. Now, why it’s really important to realize this, is because this is exactly what makes technology so complicated because technology brings things that are far away and makes it feel right here. And so, all of a sudden, we can spend our whole day saying we want to get more work done, we want to get focused. Well, what inputs are coming your way that make everything feel extremely threatening?

There was a fascinating research that was done after the Boston Marathon bombing, and they looked at the stress and trauma levels of people that were at the scene of the crime, of this tragedy. Then they compared it to people who consumed media about it. And the acute stress levels were higher in those that were watching it than those that were there.

And so, that tells us, like when technology brings something to us, we perceive it wrongly, so our attention is always going to go towards stress. And the other thing, and I’ll pause after this one when it comes to our right hemisphere, is then we’re also wired to seek out new fun things, things that our past have said, “That is interesting. Every time I go there, it feels good,” or, “I have no idea what that is.” It’s new, it’s interesting, that’s why I’m always like, “What else could be on Twitter? What else could be here?” because you’re wired to explore. Your brain is made to go in search of things that are interesting.

So, that’s the foundation for what drives our attention, “Is it interesting? Is it threatening?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Interesting. Threatening. Nice summary. So, when you say bottom-up, you mean in terms of just like there’s a stimulus, and, “Brrp,” as opposed to, “Here’s my masterplan, and I am enacting it.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. Yeah, it starts in the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, that’s handy there in terms of threats, pain, fear, anxiety, and the novelty. And, well, I guess that’s why the news can really suck you in because it’s always new. By the definition, it’s the news. This is something that has happened recently that you probably are not aware of because it’s all across the world. And, by the way, it could be threatening you in terms of if the election outcome you find to be threatening, one way or the other, or COVID, or any number of natural disasters, or economic crisis. Yeah, that’s a real potent double whammy there. The news hits you both.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And we’re seeing like a 79% increase in the amount of time people are spending checking news through digital channels. And so, like, why is this so important? Because we pay attention to what matters the most at any moment, and we say, “How do I get more work done? How I get more focused?” Maybe not a lifehack, it’s more of saying, “Okay. Well, you’re not going to focus on something that has to do with work if you don’t know that it matters a ton, and you don’t block out, you don’t spend less time on the threats that are far away that can be perceived really closely.” So, that’s kind of a step one, easy way to think about practical implications of attention science.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, that makes sense in terms of fundamentally, principally, that’s what’s up in terms of, like, biochemistry, evolution, the human condition, yeah, here we are, we’ve got some predispositions to go that way.

Curt Steinhorst
I can give you a few more layers because, clearly, we’re not monkeys, we’re not cows. I mean, cows, they eat the grass because it tastes good, they have an associated reward, and they run away from wolves. Like, that’s what they do. We’re not just that. So, that’s where the other system comes in. The other system of attention, it allows us to say, “I’m going to ignore that, that interesting thing, right now that doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on something unilaterally.” This is the type of work people really want when they say, “I want to get focused.”

And some would say the ultimate state of that type of focus is what’s called flow. Now, what happens there is that when we have our attention prioritized by the left hemisphere, the things that are unfamiliar, literally, you don’t see it anymore, you don’t hear it anymore. It all disappears. Like, you can zoom in for periods of time, and it can be extended.

And there’s ways we can increase and decrease our capacity but, ultimately, we do those things when it’s challenging, it demands something from us, when the barriers to other fun things that give us a reward are not available, meaning, “I need to work on a research project for a bank that I’m working with right now, but I also would love to see what my Fantasy Football team is doing. Like, I’ll do the easier thing,” and when we see that we can make real progress towards it. Like, I feel some level of mastery.

If it’s just a list of tasks, then it’s not satiating. Like, we can’t make our attention go to things that are boring and uninteresting. They have to be challenging and interesting, new and interesting, threatening and interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, run that by us again. So, we got the mastery, we’ve got barriers to easier fun things. And what else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so it has to be challenging, meaning it has to demand enough of our brain that we won’t drift off. Like, boredom is the number one reason people leave jobs, like it doesn’t take enough, “Any machine can do this.” So, challenging, “This is hard.” It has to involve something that we see ourselves becoming an expert. Mastery, like, “By working on how to ride a bike, I’m going to be, like I can do that.” “By becoming a financial advisor by learning the markets, I’m going to be the expert in the markets.” Whatever it is. We have to see that connection. And then we have to have things that are fun, not available to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is. All right. So, given that, let’s say we want to, at the very core, primal, fundamental level, focus in on something. What should we do?

Curt Steinhorst
So, start with space, decide where you’re going to do it, that’s really important. The largest neural connection between short-term and long-term memory is space, meaning, I walk into a place, and it says, my brain is cued to say, “This is what I’m supposed to do here.” So, we want to let our space work for us. Like, if I asked everyone, “Where were you when you heard about what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?” Everyone remembers where they were.

And so, I would say if I want to zero in on something, I got to pick a place that the noise isn’t too loud. It doesn’t mean…coffee shops can be really great for this, by the way, for a different reason, but, “I’m going to pick this place as where I’m going to work and the other stuff isn’t available.” Like, we call it going into a vault, “That I’m going to…my phone isn’t going to be as available, my people are going to know I’m not available, this is where I do that.” So, space is the first thing I would always tackle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, I like that metaphor going into a vault, which really…I’m thinking about Fortnite’s The Vault. It’s a huge iron enclosure with a big old dial, like, “Boom! We’re going in there,” and it’s secure, like you can put lots of gold bars in this vault.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good and clear in terms of others know, like, “Hey, I’m not to be disturbed right now.” Ideally, your phone is off or distant, you’re left in another location, and there could be any number of distractions not available to you. Like, the fridge is not there. Well, lay it on us, like what are best practices for vaulting?

Curt Steinhorst
And it depends on the type of work truly. Like, number one practice is clear barriers to entry in and out. Like, that’s the simple way to think of it. I use noise-cancelling headphones because it’s the random unexpected that you’re like, “Oh, that would be interesting.” Your line of sight is the next thing I would do. Turn off the background noise or put on classical music, and then make sure that what I see in front of me isn’t stuff that would make me want to do it instead.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a PlayStation.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, like a PlayStation.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t have that thing.

Curt Steinhorst
Like, a TV. That’s right. Or, you’re in an open office, we’ll come back there eventually, and you work in the same space with someone you know. Like, we’re social, like, “I’d rather talk to them than do this.” So, we just remove, change our line of sight. Those are kind of the big areas that I would be thinking about. And then, from there, I think it really comes down to if you’re wanting to do more creative work than having the ability to see outside is really valuable. Like, the more distant the horizon is, it actually shows that it allows you to think more creatively. If you’re wanting to knock out an Excel spreadsheet, then it’s actually tighter rooms where the blinders are on are more helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ve got HGTV scenes running through my head right now in terms of they’re just running spaces for purposes, and it’s not just really stuff for designers to charge more. It has a huge impact in how well you’re able to accomplish whatever you care to accomplish in that space, whether that’s make food, or sleep, or crank out work.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And I would say, okay, if you’re having to work from home, we need to move…once we hit a certain threshold, we get bored, we have to go somewhere else. So, it’s like just match the space to the task. If it’s cranking out a bunch of emails, or responding to quick messages, or just whatever work you’re doing that’s quick and easy, that you can bundle together, that doesn’t require tons of focus, do it wherever. But that work, that by being interrupted, you lose significantly in time and quality, and you know what that is that demands your full attention, just pick a place where that’s all you do. Like, that is the place where the hard work gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot. Okay. So, we talked about a vault. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so space first. And then the next piece I would say is like creating the clarity and removing the stuff that clutters your mind that you also feel like you have to get done. So, for instance, the number one predictor of how often you self-interrupt is how many people interrupted you the previous hour. Think of how often you’re interrupted because anytime you’re interrupted, someone is saying, “You should be paying attention to something else. There’s something else that you’re missing.”

And so, it’s really hard to say, “I’m going to focus on this,“ when your list of things that are on your mind that you know you have to get to is really long. And so, we start a couple really, really easy ways to solve this and make it easier on your brain is, number one, starting with, this is in every meeting, is, “What’s competing for your attention?” I’ll start by just doing a dump, a brain dump, anything that’s like, “Oh, I get to this. Oh, I got to do this. I got to do this.” And that’s why it’s really good at the beginning of the day kind of plan out your day by saying, “These are the things I have to get done. These are the things I could get done.” So, I start just by offloading everything.

And then the next really important piece, if you want to do focused work that’s in the vault, is you have to match the time to the task. So, you matched the space to the task, now you match the time. You schedule out, you say, “This is going to take me 45 minutes, and all the stuff that I have to do that I know is important, I’ve scheduled it. Like, I’ve given the time that is necessary for it so then I’m not burdened by, ‘What else I haven’t gotten to?’ I’m aware that there’s time allotted for it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge in terms of you can just rest easy knowing that that has a place and it’s going to get handled, as opposed to, “Might this not get done and calamity ensue? I hope not.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And the other problem is I’ve had this, clearly, a client will say, “Well, if I look at my calendar, like there’s still all this stuff I can’t get done so I end up putting 15-minute increments for things to even out.” Okay, great. Well, then you know on the frontend, and you got to either dump it or delegate it. You got to trash it so that, at least at the end of the day, you have permission to be successful.

If your day is scheduled at such a level that it’s going to come apart at the seams at some point, that’s the fastest route to get to less of it. Like, when you’re overwhelmed, what do we do? Like, what do you when you’re already feeling guilty, and like, “Aargh, this is the worst”? We watch funny cat videos, like that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s weird, huh?

Curt Steinhorst
We escape it completely because we want to alleviate that feeling of disappointment, shame, regret.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Curt Steinhorst
So, when it comes to changing that equation, you move from just a to-do list to a prioritized to-do list, and you then move from a prioritized to-do list to a calendared-timestamped approach. Let your calendar be your home screen, and let that guide what you work on, and that changes. I would say, most people have not implemented that. In my work, and if you just did that, you get probably 80% improvement, like you get a long way.

Now, there’s one problem that I have to mention on this, and it’s one of the reasons that people often struggle with this, is that it turns out people are really unreliable when it’s not what they want to do. And so, it’s like, okay, let’s put some breathers in here, and say, “I’m not a robot. At 4:00 p.m., if I put that huge project that I’ve been delaying, odds are I’m probably not going to want to do it right then.”

And so, I would just say, make sure you put the stuff that you hate the most at the times when you’re most mentally strong, which usually is more in the morning for most people. And, secondly, if you’re someone who really struggles with this, just put some gaps where you have like three different things, and let yourself choose which one you want to work on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good because I think that some resistance to this idea is like, “Oh, but then I feel boxed in.” Well, it’s sort of like, “Well, in some ways that’s sort of the point. You need a box in order to accomplish the thing that really matters that isn’t getting accomplished.” But, in other ways, hey, if it is flexible, like one task is not truly way more important than another, then, okay, game on. We can have some flexibility there.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, you’re wired to explore. You’re creative. You do the unexpected. This is what makes us actually better than machines. Machines are always going to be more efficient than us. So, I just think rather than really being frustrated with yourself, you just say, “How do we put that natural curiosity, and interest in the unexpected, how do we put it to good use rather make it end up being debilitating so that we end up nowhere?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is beautiful. So, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the time. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Then we got the people. Yeah, the people. In the work I do, this is perhaps the most underutilized piece of the equation, that when we look at it, organizations, if you work in a company, they want you to be productive. But then we put in systems, and we create culture, and we have teams that all but ensure it will never happen. And so, it’s like there’s 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week right now from before when COVID started.

Pete Mockaitis
Before COVID, okay.

Curt Steinhorst
From March until now, we’re seeing a 55% increase. I created this really fun program with Nike called The Focus Fit Challenge. It a four-week thinking of focus as a skill to develop. And we were looking at this team, and it turns out like seven hours of meetings makes it really unlikely that you’re going to be able to do anything else really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Curt Steinhorst
And so, yeah, I would say the next thing is to say, “Who steals my attention? Or, who needs my attention? And how do I have a conversation that says…?” because no one benefits from your partial attention. But the reason we all want each other’s attention is because attention is given to what matters, it says we matter. And it also helps other people help us know what matters.

And so, I would just say look at the people who are most likely to want to interrupt you, to want to take it from you, to deserve your attention, and set up some ground rules that says, “During this time, I’m not going to be available at all. During this time, I’m going to be only available to you, and let’s figure out what that needs to look like,” so that now you have advocates for people that previously would’ve been frustrated because it was only going to take a second. It’s like, sure, if we warp the space-time continuum, it’ll only take a second, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s great. And then that can feel really good. And I guess that sort of gets to all of this, is that it’s kind about getting really real early instead of late in terms of like you’re not overscheduling, then the day comes apart at the seams, we feel like a loser, failure, because you ruined it. And not with people telling them, “You get this much time, or you don’t get this much time,” and then either disappointing them or you not following through. It’s like you’re making the calls in advance in terms of, “This is going to happen, this is what’s not going to happen, and I am comfortable and responsible with regard to the consequences of it,” as opposed to, “Well, I hope I can make maybe get lucky and get it all done. Let’s see what happens.”

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, that’s right. When we look and we see how people are feeling about work, there’s been an over 31% increase in burnout during this period, even though at the beginning we’ve got a lot of things cleared from our plates. There’s been this 48% increase in team chats, and it makes sense. It really does. Like, “If we can’t see you, then we want to hear from you more often.” But what’s happening is we’re creating a culture where responsiveness is everyone’s highest responsibility, and then we see and we wonder why this engagement occurs, frustration occurs, people feel like there’s less work-life balance, they can’t unplug. Home relationships suffer. At work, relationships are not being built because we’re dislocated.

And so, all I would just say is it’s about being proactive in this but it’s about really giving yourself permission to succeed. Like, this is the challenges when we react and don’t set clear agreed-upon expectations. What we end up doing is we allow the unspoken expectations of others to drive us, and then we actually teach them what they should expect. And so now, we’re emailing immediately back, and now they’re frustrated if we don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Curt Steinhorst
So, if you reliably don’t respond to emails for a day, like the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, then guess what? No one expects it. Now, I understand some are like, “Tell my boss this.” Right. Let’s start with all the other relationships you have a little more power over, setting some healthier boundaries, and then we can have a conversation with your boss about saying, “I want to do this really well. Can we set some rules around how I know when I’m allowed to do the uninterrupted work?” You know what I mean? So, let’s start with the people that we care about, and just say, “Let’s figure this out together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Or, even just yourself in terms of, ‘No, 7:15 to 7:45, I’m not looking at any devices. I’m taking a shower, I’m journaling, whatever.” And then, yeah, start not at the hardest possible boundary to enforce but the easiest.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons we’re like, “I’m not going to do it from 7:15 to 7:45.” Look, if the alternative, if you’re going to stop looking at your phone while you sit on the couch and watch TV, or the rule becomes about constraint, rather than saying, like, “What’s this replacing?” So, make sure that if you’re going to set ground rules, make it because there’s something better. You know what I mean?

It’s like, “From 7:15 to 7:45, we’re going to have a fun high-low day to talk about that,” or, “I’m going to take my kids on a wagon ride.” Like, have something proactive, and then before you get into it, mind a gap. Like, give yourself a gap that says, “I’ve just looked at everything in the world, nothing needs my attention now. And now I’m going to actually give myself permission to just be here.” It’s like close up before so you know nothing matters, and then do something fun, do something that does matter with that time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect. Well, Curt, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of diagnosing what’s going on here and why we find ourselves in this spot, and what are some things we can do. Lay it on us, you’ve shared this wisdom with many people. I’m sure some have adopted it to tremendous effect, and many others have done nothing. Why? What’s sort of like the holdup, the roadblock, the mistake, the thing that you could help us overpower so that we’re in the group that transforms?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that would drive our inability to see real progress here. One is that we actually don’t know why we’re doing it. And the point of efficiency and boundaries around these things always has to be founded in something worth focusing on. And so, people aren’t going to just be more efficient and productive if the end is just more efficiency and productivity, and climbing a ladder without a picture of where they’re headed. And so, I would say the biggest thing is like know what you’re devoting this extra uninterrupted energy to, and know that it’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Curt, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, I would just say focus is possible but make the goal not to be an efficient machine. Make the goal instead to eliminate all the stuff that waste your time, distracts you, so that you can actually have a chance to really thrive in this moment. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and so I’m all too familiar with distraction. And what doesn’t help us is an unrealistic expectation towards efficiency without a realization that we’re all capable of focus when we know what matters.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, my favorite quote is “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are,” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, I already mentioned the Boston Marathon research. I‘ve been using that. I think that’s really, really interesting and fascinating. The interesting study out of Michigan State talks about how walking through nature actually restores your attention. It’s called Attention Restoration Theory. And I’m really fascinated by how subtle amounts of background noise actually increase our ability to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I can’t let that go. If I wanted to get me some of that, what do you recommend I do for my subtle amounts of background noise?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, the coffee shop, subtle background noise there. I would say the key is if you can get outdoors and into actual nature, that’s the number one thing you want to do. If you can’t, having the feeling of movement is good. You just don’t want it to be people that you know. So, you want to go places where the noise has a small amount of noise. It creates what’s called the inhibitory spillover. It forces the system in your brain to inhibit, block out everything, so you just kind of want a dull lull in a subtle stimulation through movement that’s in the background. So, coffee shops are actually probably the perfect place to be able to get that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Curt Steinhorst
There’s a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks, that I think is the most entertaining and beautiful narrative on the fullness of human sociology and psychology right now. So, if you want to understand like all that’s out there in a really fun way, that’s the book I’d recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Curt Steinhorst
I’ve gotten really where I love the tool Notion. And the reason I love Notion is it’s a system that you can build on but it allows for me to have full visibility on all the tasks I need to do, but even deeper. It allows me to have content that gets linked and referenced across so it’s not me having 12 versions of Google Docs. I use databases and things like that to be able to consolidate research and consulting work and strategies into a single place.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Curt Steinhorst
I have a monthly note that is my idea, interesting ideas and thoughts. And so, I actually used to use Evernote, now I switched to Notion. And anything I’m thinking about, like, “Oh, gosh, that podcast. I really want to watch that podcast, or someone recommended an article, or a quote I came across, or I should use one kind of sunscreen versus another,” like anything. Rather than trying to file it, I throw it all in a single note, and then once a month I do a full review. Even when I read articles, I’ll keep the whole article if it’s for my space but if it’s not, I’ll just pull out the quotes and link it so that, at the very least, if it’s something I found interesting, I will review it twice. And then I’ll file it wherever it belongs later, but I feel no pressure. I just dump it in a single spot.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Curt Steinhorst
I think, I guess, the thing I see on Twitter more than anything is the very basic, that your attention is the most limited, valuable, precious, and misunderstood resource. And there’s no greater gift that you can give to someone than your undivided attention.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Curt Steinhorst
The website is probably the first place, FocusWise.com. And then, if they want to add an email, my email is CS@FocusWise.com. And then social platforms are complicated but if that’s your cup of tea, LinkedIn is definitely the place that I’m most engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And any final challenges or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Curt Steinhorst
You make some simple changes. Don’t do it by putting more work on your plate. Do it by making your space help you out. And do it by just looking at your time, and saying, “I’m going to divide my time. I’m not going to divide my attention.”

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all the things you’re attending to.

Curt Steinhorst
Hey, this has been my joy. I’m really grateful for the time.